UNESCO unites eight countries across the Mediterranean to protect underwater heritage on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Convention

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, UNESCO is launching the largest ever international cooperation programme involving eight countries on both shores of the Mediterranean for the safeguarding of the underwater cultural heritage of the Skerki Banks. This is an exceptional archaeological site located in the north-western part of the Strait of Sicily, which has been frequented since antiquity by ships travelling the trade route between Rome and Carthage.

Underwater cultural heritage is the witness of millennia of our common memory. Hidden from view and protected beneath the surface of oceans, seas, lakes and rivers lies a priceless, largely unknown and underestimated heritage.

The famous Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau said, “we love what we marvel at, and we protect what we love’’. Yet underwater heritage is threatened by looting and commercial exploitation, industrial trawling, coastal development, and exploitation of natural resources and the seabed. It is also vulnerable to global warming, acidification, and water pollution.

In order to better protect, understand and promote this unique and fragile heritage, UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage on 2 November 2001.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Convention has become the global legal framework for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. It provides legal and practical tools for States and underwater heritage professionals to identify and ensure the proper safeguarding, management and transmission of this heritage to future generations. Its Rules concerning Activities directed at Underwater Cultural Heritage establish common principles in the field of underwater archaeology, scientific excavations and site management.

Over the past twenty years, the Convention’s achievements include:

  • The creation of a Scientific and Technical Advisory Body composed of 14 members, which undertakes field missions to support States in their efforts to protect their underwater cultural heritage. Bulgaria, Guatemala, Haiti, Madagascar, Panama and Paraguay have already benefited or are benefiting from its support. The missions take into account the expectations of communities living near underwater sites.
  • The establishment of an extensive network of partners including a university twinning network with nearly 30 universities cooperating in the field of underwater archaeology, an international centre for training and research in underwater archaeology in Zadar, Croatia, as well as an extensive network of professional NGOs accredited to the Convention to support its implementation.
  • The adoption of a Code of Ethics for diving at submerged archaeological sites to ensure responsible access to the sites by the general

Safeguarding the Skerki Banks

One of the strengths of the Convention is its promotion of international cooperation in the protection of underwater cultural heritage. For the first time in the history of the Convention, eight States from both shores of the Mediterranean – Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia acting as coordinating State – have joined forces, to safeguard the underwater cultural heritage of the Skerki Banks. It is an area of exceptional archaeological potential located to the northwest of the Strait of Sicily.

This area is at the heart of a network of exchanges in the Mediterranean that goes back several millennia. The Skerki Banks are made up of reefs that are dangerous to navigate and are located along an ancient high sea trade route linking Ostia – the supply port of Rome – to the city of Carthage in present-day Tunisia.

The exceptional archaeological potential of the Skerki Banks is well known to specialists. Between 1988 and 1997, several American operations explored a vast area north of the site, in the Strait of Sicily. These expeditions were among the very first large-scale operations in deep-sea archaeology and made it possible to locate at least eight extremely well-preserved wrecks from various periods.

The presence of the wreck of the Athenian, a British Royal Navy ship from the early 19th century, is also attested by archaeologists. This ship, armed by Malta and requisitioned by the French and then by the British, had taken part in several naval battles and had gone as far as China before running into the reefs of the Skerki Banks. The Athenian took her captain and over three hundred souls with her when she sank in 1806. The presence of wrecks from the Second World War is also documented in the area.

Thanks to the unique state cooperation mechanism provided by the 2001 Convention, UNESCO is launching, alongside these eight partnering countries, a major campaign to study and safeguard this site. This is essential for understanding the history of the Mediterranean. A scientific survey mission to the area is planned for autumn 2021. Thanks to the provision by France of its new underwater archaeology research vessel with the latest state-of-the-art technology on board, this expedition will aim to explore the area and begin the survey and study of its rich heritage.

The 20th anniversary of the Convention provides a unique opportunity to celebrate these achievements that have advanced underwater archaeology and the protection of underwater heritage. It is also a great opportunity to raise public awareness of its protection, and to reflect, collectively, on the many challenges ahead. UNESCO invites people to rediscover this little-known heritage that unites us with the seas and the ocean – the “largest museum in the world” – but also with the lakes, rivers and streams where societies have always been dwelling.

This is an occasion to mobilise more States to ratify the Convention and thereby guarantee the best possible protection of this heritage, through enhanced international cooperation.

Several events are planned to commemorate the adoption of this fundamental Convention in 2021.

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