The British Academy and Honor Frost Foundation urge the Government to do more to protect its rich maritime heritage

23 Mar 2014

The British Academy and Honor Frost Foundation have today published a briefing document calling on the UK Government to do more to protect Britain’s rich maritime legacy by ratifying the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

The steering group of senior archaeologists and underwater cultural heritage experts, brought together by the British Academy and the Honor Frost Foundation, warns that without ratification the UK would be largely incapable of offering protection to UK wrecks lying beyond our own waters.

Britain’s maritime heritage extends across the world. The “2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: The Case for UK Ratification” makes clear that this heritage should be a treasured legacy, but it now faces a range of threats. The wrecks of ships that sank outside the UK’s waters are being plundered by modern commercial treasure hunters and their important cultural heritage lost.

Many of these ships remain the last resting place of many UK seafarers. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, there is increasing public interest in the treatment of UK wrecks around the world. The briefing document argues that ratification by the UK Government would show that it is doing all it can to protect Britain’s maritime heritage and the mass graves of those lost at sea.

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, adopted in 2001, sets out basic principles, practical rules and a State cooperation system to protect the world’s underwater cultural heritage sites. At the time of adoption, the UK supported the principles of the Convention but did not ratify because of reservations about the text and fears that it would not attract universal support.

However, since 2001, the UNESCO Convention has become the global standard for the protection of underwater cultural heritage, and several of the key maritime states that previously shared the UK’s concerns have now ratified. A recent independent Impact Review, published by English Heritage, has shown that the UK’s concerns in 2001 should no longer prevent it from ratifying and that signing up to the Convention may actually save the UK money.

Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe FBA, Chairman of the British Academy and Honor Frost Foundation Steering Committee on Underwater Cultural Heritage said:

“The UK’s management of underwater cultural heritage is already quite advanced, but the current provision of protection is uneven, even for sites that are of national importance. The only way to ensure effective protection is for the UK Government to ratify the 2001 UNESCO Convention.

“The recent Impact Review has shown that the UK’s initial concerns no longer apply. It is vital that the UK remains at the forefront of international efforts to safeguard underwater cultural heritage and share its significance with wider audiences.

“The centenary of the First World War this year is ample reminder that the remains of many British ships and seafarers rest on the seabed beyond our Territorial Sea. The UK should take advantage of the positive mechanisms set out in the Convention to safeguard the last resting places of so many and ensure that the UK’s interests are fully respected.”

Jane Maddocks, Underwater Heritage Advisor for the British Sub Aqua Club and member of the BA/HFF Steering Committee on Underwater Cultural Heritage said:

“The 2001 UNESCO Convention takes an unambiguous stand against commercial exploitation, but it does not prevent exploration or investigation. It simply ensures that work is properly planned and everyone’s intentions are made clear.

“By providing a comprehensive framework for underwater cultural heritage, the Convention increases certainty for sea-uses and helps reinforce the message that proper care for underwater cultural heritage does not mean excluding other economic activities”

Lord Stern, President of the British Academy said:

“By ratifying the 2001 UNESCO Convention, the UK Government would ensure that our underwater cultural heritage is effectively managed and protected, and would allow the UK to advance the social and economic importance of its maritime heritage. Protection of these sites is needed so that we can benefit from them in terms of research and underwater archaeology. In addition, the sites themselves have huge cultural and historical significance.”

Underwater cultural heritage is a potential source of international growth for the UK, across research, teaching, conservation, technology, survey and professional services. Several UK sectors linked to underwater heritage have a good standing internationally, but this growth is inhibited by isolation. The BA/HFF briefing document warns that if the UK does not ratify it could become a backwater serving only its domestic markets – perhaps even surrendering those – as others press their international advantage within the framework of the Convention.

More information about the British Academy and Honor Frost Foundation’s briefing document and the Impact Review is available here.

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