x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Treaty to protect underwater heritage

A UN convention coming into force next year will mean greater protection for mankind's sub-aquatic legacy.

Divers raise a granite statue of a priest from an Egyptian temple from the submerged island of Antirhodos in Alexandria harbour.
Divers raise a granite statue of a priest from an Egyptian temple from the submerged island of Antirhodos in Alexandria harbour.

NEW YORK // The crumbling remains of Cleopatra's palace, the many-gated Indian city of Dwarka and the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean hub of Port Royal are undoubtedly listed among the world's archaeological treasures - but they have something else in common. The three sites are all under water, and thanks to a United Nations convention coming into force next year, are set to benefit from greater protection being afforded to mankind's sub-aquatic legacy.

The submerged sites in Alexandria, Gujarat and Jamaica, together with sections of the ancient city of Carthage, in Tunisia, and the temples of Mahabalipuram, in India, fall under the remit of the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Officials from Unesco, the UN body that helps to conserve mankind's heritage, are also working to safeguard the more than three million shipwrecks scattered across the planet's ocean floors.

Experts warn that sunken vessels - such as the Titanic, the Spanish Armada and the junk fleet on which Kublai Khan attempted a Japanese invasion - are increasingly being targeted by scuba-diving relic hunters. Concerns have mounted since Michael Hatcher, a prolific wreck raider, located the Chinese junk Tek Sing, which sank in 1822 in the Gelasa strait between Borneo and Sumatra, and recovered 350,000 pieces of Chinese blue and white porcelain in 1999.

In 1986, he also raised 170,000 pieces of Chi'ing dynasty porcelain and 126 gold bars from the Geldermalsen, a Dutch "East Indiaman" ship that sank to the murky depths off Singapore in 1751. Mr Hatcher has been criticised for damaging artifacts in the pursuit of profits. The adventurer promised that emerging technology would allow the recovery of all salvageable wrecks on the world's sea beds within two decades.

Underwater exploration technology has developed rapidly since Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan developed the aqualung in the early 1940s and allowed divers to reach ever-greater depths. The Japanese research submarine Shinkai 6.500 dived to 6,527 metres below sea level in the trench off Sanriku, Japan, in 1989; while an unmanned investigation, Kaiko, descended to the record depth of 10,911 metres, six years later.

Koichiro Matsuura, Unesco's director general, said the convention, which will enter into force on Jan 2, will "offer legal protection to the historical memory that is in underwater cultural heritage, thus curtailing the growing illicit trade by looters". From next year, the treaty will cover wrecks and sites within the territorial waters of the 20 ratifying countries, from Libya to Lebanon - and the "many more states" expected to sign up, added Ulrike Koschtial of Unesco.

The treaty closes loopholes exploited by wreck raiders as it applies to sunken vessels bearing the flag of a ratifying nation that lie at the bottom of international waters. It further empowers officials to prevent scavengers from trafficking salvaged artifacts through ports and borders. "If a site is above ground and in a country's territory, then you can put a policeman next to it and stand guard," said Ms Koschtial, the officer responsible for the treaty. "But that is not the case with sites of underwater cultural heritage.

"This convention is the first step in creating general and harmonised legal protection of underwater archaeological heritage that we can use to prohibit commercial exploitation, pillaging and looting." Unesco advocates the use of metal cages to protect vulnerable underwater sites from pillagers or boat anchors, and sonar buoys that photograph potential intruders and transmit alerts back to the wreck's guardians.

While officials welcome the growing number of scuba-divers to visit wrecks and submerged sites like Port Royal - the "city that sank" into the Caribbean in 1692 - they insist enthusiasts treat sites with respect. Other underwater treasures include the limestone sinkholes of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, known locally as cenotes, and the Neolithic rock art caves submerged beneath the Black Sea. While the lost city of Atlantis is perhaps the most widely known example of underwater heritage, the mythical marvel is matched in reality by immersed sites the size of Pompeii, Unesco says.

Although at surface it appears gloomy and brooding, the North Sea hides several archaeological gems with remains of Neanderthal camp sites preserved in brine for more than 50,000 years. Archaeologists have long suspected the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea hide evidence of the early hominids that left Africa for the peninsula. Wrecks like the Umbria, a freighter that sank off Sudan's coast in 1940, have already become a favourite of Red Sea resort scuba divers.

The bay of Alexandria hosts its own underwater bounty, with the remains of Cleopatra's palace and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, among a collection of submerged treasures. For this site, Unesco's relic guardians aim for greater protection than is envisaged under the convention, with plans to build an underwater museum to showcase what remains of the last Ptolemaic queen.