The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 112

Issue 112

May / Jun 2010


Rare prehistoric finds at major Carlisle dig

Hammerwich hoard "saved" – but who for?

Mary Rose studies query science of tracing migration

Surprising age of new-found stone row on Dartmoor

in brief & phase 2


University archaeology

THE BIG DIG: Discovering Bosworth

The Buried Gods of Gogmagog

Three Men and a (Leaky) Boat

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates the archaeological value of encyclopaedic websites and Stuart Jeffrey describes the Grey Lierature Library


A child's gift to science, the human remains debate


Your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Mike Heyworth explores the great rewards and challenges of undersea archaeology


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

CBA Correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA

Mike Heyworth explores the great rewards and challenges of undersea archaeology.

Discussions about the islands which now make up the United Kingdom can sometimes overlook the fact that only some 5,000 years ago most of them were not islands at all, but linked up and joined with what is now north-west Europe. As a consequence, archaeological evidence under the sea surrounding the UK is plentiful. It consists not only of the remains of our seafaring and nautical heritage, such as shipwrecks and harbour installations, but also of entire prehistoric landscapes. With modern technology these landscapes, and deeply buried shipwrecks, are becoming more easily accessible to archaeologists and to others.

As on land, the threats to this underwater and coastal archaeological evidence include the natural processes of change in the environment. The historical activities of harvesting the seas through fishing and trawling also take their toll, and marine development is a factor – and will become increasingly so in the future. Dredging for ports and shipping, mineral extraction and construction of offshore energy installations, all can have a damaging effect on archaeological remains on the seabed. In addition, as on land, there are threats from those who deliberately target historical material of financial value.

Not surprisingly, marine conservation has been high on the political agenda across the UK in recent years. Managing our seas is fundamental to combating global warming, to encouraging biodiversity, and to energy and food security. These concerns underlie the vision for the marine environment of "clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas", agreed by the UK government and devolved administrations in 2002. While the focus of policy and political activity has been heavily weighted towards managing the seas' natural environment, the UK-wide high level marine objectives adopted last year were welcomed for their inclusive approach to the care of marine cultural heritage: the significance was recognised of "the historic environment of the seas", which "includes individual sites and assets of historic, archaeological, architectural or artistic interest, whether or not they are afforded statutory protection by heritage protection legislation" (Download Defra PDF 815KB).

In late 2009, Parliament approved the Marine and Coastal Access Act; a separate Scottish marine bill is completing its passage to the statute book, and the Northern Ireland marine bill is in its preliminary stages. The significance for archaeology and the marine environment is that the change in law will extend the regulation of potentially damaging marine activities beyond territorial waters (out to 12 nautical miles, or about 22km), to much of the continental shelf and out as far as 200 miles (320km) beyond the coast. In these waters, over prehistoric landscapes that we are only just beginning to understand and explore, our national heritage agencies have no jurisdiction, and there are no powers for designating or protecting sensitive submerged landscapes and important historic wrecks. This is increasingly becoming a focus for concern. Even the new provisions for historic marine protected areas in the Scottish marine bill, and for marine heritage assets in the draft heritage protection bill for England and Wales, can provide only a level of protection for sites out to 12nm, and not beyond.

Concerns about the protection of the marine historic environment outside the UK's territorial waters were raised in the House of Lords by Lord Howarth in a question to the government on 4 March. In response, Lord Davies of Oldham reported that the government was "looking at options for strengthening protection of significant underwater cultural heritage assets beyond territorial waters". He went on to say that the government is "observing how signatories of the 2001 Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage go about implementing it. We support the principles of the annexe of the convention in respect of best practice and treatment of underwater cultural heritage."

This is particularly relevant in relation to work with new technology on British shipwrecks, such as the Sussex and Victory, both apparently located by Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME) in recent years (though there is still uncertainty about the identification of the Sussex). The 2001 Unesco convention clearly states that "Underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited" (article 2(7)). As a consequence the role of OME has been questioned, as its business model relies on raising funds from the sale of material recovered from the wreck sites.

At the Archaeology 2010 conference at the British Museum in February, OME's chief executive Greg Stemm strongly defended this model against considerable sceptical questioning from the large audience. He tried to draw parallels between OME's work underwater and the work of archaeological contractors on land, despite several people pointing out that many contractors are charities whose remit is public benefit, and very different to OME which needs to satisfy its shareholders' desire for profit. An announcement is expected in the next few weeks on the UK government's intentions in relation to the wreck of HMS Victory, sunk in 1744, which lies in the English Channel (see features, May/Jun 2009).

The impact of offshore development is managed more satisfactorily. As on land, this generally occurs by agreement with developers for evaluation and mitigation in advance, and will be further regulated through the new marine spatial planning system. What remains to be addressed is the management of sites at risk from natural marine processes, from the impacts of trawling in some sensitive areas, and, most controversially, from the activities of commercial salvage companies that threaten important historic wreck sites.

The appropriate action to protect and manage underwater sites will rely on essential historic and archaeological information being available, along with expert advice, in relation to the particular risks. Here there is less clarity, and new arrangements for marine protection need to be developed further, and discussions held with the national heritage agencies, such as English Heritage and equivalent bodies.

CBA RR160: Doggerland

Many of these issues were debated in February at the CBA's winter general meeting in London. The keynote address by Nic Flemming ranged across the whole world, and featured the results of new research on a whole range of sites, including submerged towns and ports, as well as shipwrecks and subsea prehistoric landscapes. Flemming ended his presentation with a plea for everyone to work to get continental shelf prehistory on the agenda for European and national research strategies, building on work undertaken in projects such as the Doggerland study by Birmingham University.

This award-winning project also featured in the CBA's meeting and is the subject of a highly acclaimed and accessible CBA research report. Flemming also suggested that national research groups should be established with regional seas collaboration, linked to the building of a Europe-wide infrastructure for access to and management of relevant seabed physical and environmental data. An electronic network is needed, for research, collaboration, planning and sharing and integration of data and discoveries.

The CBA will be continuing to work with colleagues in the Archaeology Forum and the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee to highlight concerns relating to the protection and conservation of the marine historic environment around the UK's coast and to ensure that the all-important framework for sharing information is a priority for action.

Mike Heyworth is the director of the CBA.

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