Authors: Kim Victoria Browne
The looting and destruction of underwater cultural heritage (UCH) is leading to the irretrievable loss of our common heritage. Today, the recovery of artefacts from shipwrecks on the deep seabed has become a significant commercial maritime venture in international waters. Advances in marine science such as the invention of the aqua lung, submersible vessels, and more recently, remotely operated submersibles have resulted in humans searching for and accessing shipwrecks in the deepest parts of the world’s oceans. Adopted in 2001 by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) General Conference, and entered into force on January 2, 2009, the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (CPUCH) represents an international response to the concerns of looting and destruction of UCH. The 2001 CPUCH truncates the ancient Law of Salvage and bans the commercial trade in UCH. The archaeological community’s view that artefacts recovered from historic wrecks should never be sold and should not form part of private collections is reinforced by the convention. The 2001 CPUCH also adheres to archaeologists’ belief and other stakeholders concerned with the protection cultural materials that the application of Admiralty Law to historic wrecks is inappropriate. This paper looks at the historical practice of historic shipwreck salvage and examines the 2001 CPUCH approach towards protecting the ocean’s underwater archaeological sites.
Keywords: Admiralty Law; Salvage; Treasure Hunting; Underwater Cultural Heritage; Chuuk Lagoon.