Laws, Issues, Developments & Ethics for Underwater Cultural Heritage

The protection of underwater cultural heritage (UCH) is a focus of international, state and territorial governments. The definition of UCH embraces all traces of human existence having a historical or archaeological character that are partially or totally underwater.

Stephan Bilicki, archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust, and Jodi Carpenter conduct a remote sensing survey on the Chesapeake Bay. Photo courtesy of MAHS.

This includes prehistoric sites, shipwrecks, aircraft, artifacts, human remains, shipyards, jetties, wharves, docks, submerged buildings and towns, together with their archaeological and natural context. UCH sites can be in rivers, lakes, springs, bays, and the sea.In 2001 an international agreement for UCH was adopted by UNESCO. The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and its Annex Rules entered into force in January of 2009 upon ratification by the required 20 countries. As of August 2011, the number of countries that have ratified stands at 40 nations. The Convention stresses the need for preservation, management, scientific investigation, and public education for the UCH.

Navy Archaeologist George Schwarz Inspects a Cannon from the Suspected Site of USS Revenge. Photo courtesy Heather Brown.

There are a wide variety of laws, regulations, standards, and guidelines that address the protection of and acquisition of objects from UCH sites.

Concerns about and confusion over the ethics and proper excavation of UCH are often raised in the popular media.

Developments and treaties relating to UCH are increasingly important to both the public and professional. These pages include information on all of these areas; we hope you will find them useful. We also welcome your suggestions to add to these pages.