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Underwater heritage protection: Australia’s great leap forward has some worrying omissions

Australia enacted new legislation last month to protect the country’s underwater cultural heritage, replacing forty-year-old legislation. Here Danielle Wilkinson and Bob MacKintosh of Wessex Archaeology assess the new framework. Danielle studied and worked in Australia until earlier this year, while Bob is a doctoral researcher at the University of Southampton investigating the implementation of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

Australia enacted the new Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) Bill 2018 on 24th August, replacing the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976and extending protection to a wider range of UCH sites. The Act attempts to bring national legislation into line with the provisions of the UNESCO 2001Convention, and so pave the way for Canberra’s ratification. But despite it being an immense improvement in heritage protection within Australian waters, it may yet fall short of the gold standard that Australian maritime archaeologists were hoping for.

Much like the UK’s 1973 Protection of Wreck Act, the Australian Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976came into being as a reaction to salvage attempts on significant historic shipwrecks. Public outcry led to the creation of individual State and Territory Acts for the protection of historic shipwrecks, as well as the 1976 federal Act, which established that all historic shipwrecks and their associated relics were of value to all Australians. Unlike UK legislation, it banned salvage of any kind and set standards for managing historic shipwrecks. In 1993, Australia’s Commonwealth Minister further declared blanket protection for all historic shipwrecks over 75 years old as well as their associated artefacts—even if a wreck hasn’t yet been found. This was miles ahead of the protection provided to wrecks in the UK, where only a very small number of designated wrecks are protected. All other UK sites are legally open to salvage and the destruction of their archaeological contexts as long as those salvaged items are reported to the Receiver of Wreck under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

SS Wyola at Robbs Jetty Western Australia

Image: SS Wyola at Robbs Jetty, Western Australia 

Rather than focussing just on shipwrecks, the new Act provides that UCH includes “any trace of human existence that: (a) has a cultural, historical or archaeological character, and (b) is located under water” (s. 15.1). This can include “sites, structures, buildings, artefacts and human and animal remains” as well as “vessels, aircraft and other vehicles or any part thereof” with their archaeological and natural context and associated articles (s. 15.2).

The Act, however, only gives automatic protection to certain types of UCH—namely vessels, aircraft and their associated artefacts that have been in Australian waters for at least 75 years. Any other form of site—such as jetties, seawalls, moorings, slips, swimming enclosures and anti-submarine boom nets—need the minister responsible to declare it protected, based on an assessment of significance. This implies that some types of UCH are important and automatically worthy of protection while others are not—and that some sites might not merit protection. This sentiment is not at all in line with the UNESCO Convention, which requires signatories to take a blanket approach to protecting UCH. Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 already provides nationwide protection to Aboriginal archaeological sites throughout Australian waters. But many site types fall between these stools.

The UNESCO Convention is also about cooperation between countries to protect UCH even beyond a country’s territorial waters. To this end, it sets out procedures for collaborative protection between states. But for these to work, a country must ensure that its nationals and vessels report discoveries even outside their territorial waters. Australia’s new Act does provide that discoveries inside territorial waters must be reported. But it sets out no equivalent reporting procedure for sites in other countries’ waters, or those beyond the jurisdiction of any state.

The shortcomings of the new Act may mean that Australia is not as involved in global cooperation as it should be. But Australia has pioneered UCH protection since the 1970s, and everyone involved in creating the new Act should be congratulated loudly for this major legislative upgrade, which puts Australia even further ahead of the UK. British archaeologists still operate within a system based on salvage law. They can only dream of the automatic protection of all shipwrecks or the legal obligation to report discoveries. It is time for the UK—and many other countries besides—to follow Australia’s lead.

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Edited by John P Cooper  


 Back to the Rooswijk: Summer 2018 on the Goodwin Sands, UK

NAS membership was once more Duncan Ross’s gateway to hands-on involvement on a major underwater archaeological project. He was again selected to be an NAS volunteer team member on this year’s investigation of 18th century Dutch East Indiaman the Rooswijk off the UK’s Kent coast—after a thrilling experience in 2017. Here he reports on this year’s activities.  

Luck shone on me this summer when I was once again chosen to be part of the team investigating outlying areas of the Rooswijk wreck site. The Dutch East India Company merchantman Rooswijk sank on the Goodwin Sands—a.k.a. The Great Ship Swallower—in January 1740. The project is being run by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands with assistance from Historic England. 

On a sunny evening in early August, our nine-member Anglo-Dutch team convened at Ramsgate, in the south-east English county of Kent, to discuss the forthcoming days. At a thoroughly unsociable 03.45 a.m. the following morning, we awoke, drank a quick coffee and headed out aboard our dive boat Peganina to catch a short, early morning slack tide. 

Fig 1: Planning the dive (Image: Mark Beattie-Edwards/NAS). 

Our sole task this year was to further investigate the ‘Gun Site’, an area 50m northeast of the main site. The most recent multibeam sonar scan had shown a couple of new anomalies and possible shifts in the position of guns. One of our tasks was to investigate whether the guns had moved, or whether they had simply been surveyed incorrectly during the previous season.

One of the theories about the formation of the Gun Site is that, as Rooswijk was struggling, the crew may have attempted to lighten the load by jettisoning some of their cannon. It is still possible, however, that the site is unrelated to Rooswijk: although there is no definite evidence of structural remains, the site could belong to a different wreck altogether. Project leader Martijn Manders’ revelation that the team has now located more guns than expected for the Rooswijk lends some credence to this interpretation. Either way it is very tantalising.


Fig 2: Plan of the Gun Site (Image: Mark Beattie-Edwards). 

Our first dive focused on basic orientation and checking whether guidelines installed last year were still in place. Though beautifully sunny up top, darkness closed in as I descended the 20m or so down the shot line until it was virtually black: visibility was down to about 30cm. Aided by powerful torches, we spotted fishing nets next to some of the guns—which could explain their apparent movement.

Our surface interval was spent aboard DSV Curtis Marshall, where we were treated to bacon sandwiches, coffee and a viewing of some of the most recent finds.


Fig. 3: A onion bottle from the Rooswijk inspected aboard DSV Curtis Marshall (Image: Duncan Ross). 

On the second dive, my buddy and I were assigned the task of locating the most northerly gun on the site and investigating the theory that there was another one close by. Following a guide line from gun no.9—where we also discovered some interesting timbers—we finned along for a few minutes expecting to arrive at the northern gun. In fact, we were surprised to discover that we had headed west (!) arriving instead at an unidentified feature (F-403 in Fig. 2). There are a few theories about what this could be, but no definite answer. But with the project at an end we may never find out for certain. The dive time remaining did not allow us to search on for the north gun.


Fig 4: Timbers next to gun no. 9 (Image: Duncan Ross).

Lady luck is a fickle mistress, and bad weather during an otherwise glorious summer saw the rest of the week’s diving cancelled. But this did not lessen the experience: we headed instead to Ramsgate harbour to measure anchors and a cannon, and to visit the museum, where some excellent artefacts from HMS Stirling Castle, wrecked in 1703, are displayed.


Fig. 5: Writing up after the dive (Image:  Mark Beattie-Edwards/NAS).

Although not as much diving took place as I would have wished for, good-natured banter and chats about archaeology and history ensured new friends were made a good time was had by all. A final mention must be made of NAS volunteer and diver Monica who cooked a most memorable banquet for us. I think it was the first time most of us had tasted peanut butter chicken! 


 Fig. 6: Monica’s banquet  (Image: Mark Beattie-Edwards/NAS)


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Edited by John P Cooper