By Roberto Junco, ACUA Board

One of the most important points from the 2001 UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, is without doubt International Cooperation. Member States are encouraged to work with each other as well as with those that have not signed to foster and champion the principles of the convention. Since signing in 2004, Mexico has been a driving force to promote the values of the convention by the international community. An example of this is the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with Spain to join efforts in the research and study of the galleon Nuestra Señora del Juncal, sunk in the Gulf of Mexico in 1631.

During diplomatic meetings in 2019, between Mexico and Jamaica to foster ties through their Educational Cultural Heritage Program, Jamaica asked the government of Mexico for expertise in the effort to promote the sunken city of Port Royal as a World Heritage Site. Jamaica had summited a dossier to UNESCO for World Heritage Status of Port Royal, that had been returned with recommendations. One was that Jamaica should focus on the underwater part, and also to turn in a detailed Heritage Impact Assessment of the submerged site. Mexico’s INAH was asked to help prepare this Assessment.

Port Royal is a well-known submerged site, one of a handful of sunken cities known to us. During an earthquake in 1692, part of the city sank, the ships crashed against the port, the sandy ground became liquid with buildings collapsing and many people losing their lives in an instant. Ever since the disaster, the main narrative has been that Port Royal was a pirate city “the wickedest city in the world”. It is true that Port Royal was an flourishing English commercial hub for the Caribbean in the 17 century and that pirates were part of scene. For further information:

In the 20th century, famous treasure hunter Robert Marx dove intensively the city recuperating artifacts, some of which are not in the hands of the Jamaican Government today, but appear in eBay for sale. It is in the 1980s that serious archaeological work began in Port Royal championed by TAMU/INA, notably dedicating a decade to its archaeological study. Several houses were excavated and outstanding archaeological data was produced by Hamilton and the rest of the team.

Work in the Heritage Impact Assessment began with the documentation of the site in 2021 by means of Photogrammetry. The site map by Marx and INA had to be updated. With the help of archaeologist Kotaro Yamufune from Japan, a 3D model of the site was created. Roughly 40% of the site was documented using photogrammetry. The results were interesting, as we could now see Fort James, the structures excavated by TAMU/INA and the overall state of the site. One of the most exciting finds was the location of a defensive structure not previously documented that comprises a battery of bricks for at least 2 canons pointing towards the entrance of the bay of Kingston. Yamafune also imparted a course in the use of Photogrammetry to the staff of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT).

View of Fort James from the photogrammetry model by Kotaro Yamafune and to the left a smaller complementary defensive structure.
Kotaro Yamafune imparting his course on photogrammetry to the staff of the JNHT.
Kotaro Yamafune imparting his course on photogrammetry to the staff of the JNHT.

To prepare the Heritage Impact Assessment, different organization were consulted with many professionals willing to lend a hand, and finally a team of experts came together to visit Jamaica and prepare the document in 2022, Marc André Bernier from National Parks Canada, Martjin Manders from the Cultural Agency of the Netherlands as well as Laura Carrillo Marquez, Vera Moya Sordo and Roberto Junco from INAH, Mexico. During the visit, several actors were consulted and working sessions to brainstorm and complete the report took place. The result is a Heritage Impact Assessment report of 110 pages. This is part of the dossier that will reviewed at UNESCO early 2023.

Further work continues in Jamaica. This November a small team of international researchers, Kotaro Yamafune and Mariana Piña from INAH, did a field school for the JNHT specialists to train them in Underwater Excavation. The focus is again in empowering Jamaican archaeologists to carry out the management, research, conservation and diffusion of the sunken city on their own.

Port Royal raises interesting questions on who makes the research, with what vision and where.

And how can all archaeologists contribute to the empowerment of archaeologists, cultural agencies, and government policy in other countries. How can local archaeologists focus on different narratives of their heritage that are important to themselves? How can Cultural Heritage contribute to the local economy through tourism? Port Royal is today very much a tourist attraction in the eyes of part of the Jamaican Government.

But the agencies dedicated to cultural heritage in Jamaica understand the responsibility they have to assume to protect, study and maintain this important heritage. I believe that Jamaica will be up to the challenge, and will develop even more in the study and protection of its Underwater Cultural Heritage. I truly hope Jamaica gets Port Royal in the list of World Heritage Sites given its unique attributes and outstanding universal value. 2023 will be the year! Fingers crossed.

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