Last updated at 15:46 GMT, Monday, 24 March 2014

Protecting shipwrecks

Summary

24 March 2014

A group of historians are worried Britain's underwater heritage is being threatened by treasure hunters. They are asking the British government to sign up to a UN convention to help protect shipwrecks.

Reporter:

Jane Frances Kelly

Divers under the sea

Divers under the sea

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A group of leading archaeologists and scholars fear historically significant wrecks lying beyond Britain's territorial waters are being plundered and destroyed by commercial treasure hunters.

The UN convention covers ships that have been on the seabed for over a century. Quite apart from their historical significance, they are also the final resting place for those lost at sea. Sir Barry Cunliffe, retired Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University, says the UN convention provides a legal and practical framework for protecting such sites.

Sir Barry Cunliffe, retired Professor of European Archaeology:

What it does mean is that if a British ship lies in deep waters outside [our] territorial waters, any signatory can prevent anyone who is doing treasure-seeking on that wreck from using their own ports. So it begins to strengthen our hold on our underwater cultural heritage.


In the past, some wrecks were protected from plunder because they lay deep beneath the sea, but advancing excavation techniques have stripped away this safeguard. Sir Barry says treasure hunters can be very destructive as they try to find valuable artefacts.

Britain abstained from voting for the convention back in 2001 because it doubted it would be effective given it doesn't have universal support. However, the British government says it has adopted the detailed practical guidelines provided by UNESCO when dealing with marine archaeology, and it will continue to keep its position under review. Sir Barry and his fellow scholars hope that their report will prompt ministers to take a fresh look at the matter.

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Vocabulary

archaeologists

people who study ancient societies by looking at things like their buildings, tools and graves

plundered

robbed of valuable items

framework

system of rules or ideas (used to make something happen)

signatory

person, organisation or country that has signed an official document

safeguard

protection

destructive

damaging

artefacts

old objects with historical importance

abstained

(here) deliberately avoided doing something

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