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UNESCO Call to Save World’s Underwater Heritage

UNESCO Calls on Countries to Save World’s Historic Underwater Heritage

New York, Jun 29 2005 11:00AM

Seeking to preserve the world’s underwater heritage, from wonders such as the ancient Alexandria Lighthouse to historic shipwrecks to sunken cities and stone age lake settlements, the United Nations cultural organization today called on more countries to ratify an international protective treaty to enable it to enter into force.

“Exploration techniques have made the sea bed more accessible than ever and the pillage of these sites is constantly increasing,” UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Koïchiro Matsuura said, welcoming the ratification of the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage by five countries - Panama, Bulgaria, Croatia, Spain and Libya.

“This is good news for all those who are justifiably concerned by the threats weighing on underwater sites and wrecks, which are poorly protected,” he added, hoping that the ratifications “would encourage other States to follow suit on this Convention which presents a real interest for this particularly vulnerable cultural heritage.”

The treaty was adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in October 2001 and needs to be ratified by 20 states to enter into force. It gives priority to the preservation in situ of underwater cultural heritage and prohibits its commercial exploitation.

Over 3 million undiscovered shipwrecks are estimated to be spread across the ocean floors, whole cities have disappeared under the waves, such as Jamaica’s Port Royal, victim of a 1692 earthquake, and remnants of ancient civilisations, now under water include the Alexandria lighthouse in Egypt, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, cave paintings, and numerous neolithic villages under the Black Sea.

In some parts of the world, virtually no underwater site has been left unpillaged. For example, the Turkish authorities have found that no Classical Age wreck off the country’s coast has been left untouched.

Modern diving techniques have made the seabed accessible to all. This has led to extensive looting by treasure hunters who often disregard ownership rights and scientific/archaeological methods of excavation. Likewise tourists diving, the fishing industry, pipe-laying and other activities on the sea-bed can harm or destroy the underwater cultural heritage.

The Convention, which completes UNESCO’s normative instruments covering tangible cultural heritage, seeks to protect “all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally underwater, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years.”


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