This Thursday is World Oceans Day. The United Nations convenes a high-level conference to discuss the future of the oceans. Although the conference’s main focus ocean conservation, a second aspect of our seas that often overlook is the immense human history found underwater.
Millions upon millions of shipwrecks lie beneath the ocean. The most famous is the Titanic, which lies almost four kilometers below the North Atlantic. These relics, which preserve a history about our relationship with the seas, are as important as terrestrial ones like the Egyptian pyramids and the temples in Angkor. This underwater cultural heritage, like other marine ecosystems is under threat from climate change, pollution and development as well as fishing and looting.
Just this week, maritime archaeologists from Australia and Indonesia reported that HMAS Perth (a World War II shipwreck lying in the Sunda Strait, where hundreds of men rest) has sustained extensive and recent damage. The ship is now down to half its original size.
Stories From The Sea Oceans
The human relationship to the ocean goes back thousands of years. Our oceans have been food sources, connected civilisations and facilitated trade, travel, conquest and conquest. They also serve as sacred places of veneration. The ocean floor is home to three million sunken cities and shipwrecks.
They include a shipwreck from the 9th century that was discover off Indonesia’s Belitung Island in 1998. It built in the Middle East and carry a lot of Chinese ceramics. It is the oldest evidence of maritime commerce between Southeast Asia, China Tang Dynasty and Middle Eastern Abbasid empire.
These vestiges of the past are not limit to shipwrecks. Archaeologists discover evidence of sunken civilisations that were bury beneath silt and soil for many centuries. Relics of Alexandria’s ancient city include temples and palaces as well as the Pharos Lighthouse measuring 130m, which is one of the Seven Wonders of Ancient World. Egyptian authorities are now planning to build an underwater museum in order to share their discoveries with a wider audience.
Sometimes the smallest objects found underwater can reveal more than a whole city. The 2000-year-old Antikythera mechanism, which was lost in the waters of Crete for centuries, is now known as the first computer to use gears and dials to track the moon phases and predict eclipses. Scientists hope to find genetic information from the bones to help them understand ancient shipwreck victims.
Mesopotamian Location Oceans
Inlays of mother-of-pearl collected by early breath-hold divers and made by artisans found at a Mesopotamian location indicate that humans have responded creatively to the ocean’s resources since 4,500 BCE.
These past activities have left an underwater heritage that bears witness to both ancient and modern civilisations. The significance of ocean artifacts goes beyond travel, trade and recreation. This heritage can be used to show the effects of rising sea levels on human lives. This information can serve as a stark reminder of the impacts of climate change and help us find solutions to the environmental problems that we face.
Ulrike Guerin, UNESCO Secretariat of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage explains. Sea levels were lower for 90% of humanity’s existence than they are today. Humans have lived in close proximity to water for most of their development. Only in the last decade has there been an acknowledgement of the importance of the missing data from the submerged shelf.
The underwater cultural heritage can be used to help assess the effects of the ocean on human lives and monitor issues like oil pollution and unexploded ammunition from WWII shipwrecks. Guerin believes that the protection and research of this heritage can result in better conservation of coastline and marine areas. This will also bring about increased economic benefits for small islands developing countries and less developed countries through tourism.
A Sea Without History?
As with coral reefs and fish stocks, the underwater cultural heritage is at risk from over-development, climate change and marine pollution. Fishing and other industrial activities are becoming more of a concern.
Deep-sea fishing trawlers are use to destroy fishing stocks and well-preserve vessels. These bottom trawl nets are like ploughs. They dig up the ocean floor and tear down archaeological sites. Every year, thousands of artificial fishing nets lost in the Baltic Sea. These ghost nets become entangled in wrecks and trap fish and seals. The massive trawl nets that permeate every metre of the ocean floor in Southeast Asia have caused historic shipwrecks to be destroy in Thailand and Malaysia.
Illegal salvaging and looting of underwater heritage is just as dangerous as illegal poaching. Three near-pristine Japanese shipwrecks were recently disturb in Malaysian waters. This has resulted in the destruction of marine ecosystems. These wrecks have caused severe damage to small-scale fishermen and local diving companies. These illicit activities are becoming more sophisticated and bolder in Indonesia, with the latest damage to HMAS Perth.
Heritage At The Margins Oceans
Although underwater cultural heritage is a very important concept, it tends to be overlook by other policy and legal priorities. Plenary meetings at the UN Oceans Conference in New York this week are focus on marine pollution reduction, coastal and marine ecosystem protection, and ocean acidification. In a side event, the topic of underwater cultural heritage was also discuss.
Although the 2001 underwater heritage convention established basic principles for protecting these sites it faces many challenges. The convention has been ratified by 56 countries, while the US, China and the UK are the only major maritime nations to have. Australia has yet to ratify the convention, but it introduced new legislation on underwater cultural heritage in November 2016. The Heritage Convention also faces the problem of perceive opposition to the Law of the Sea which establishes the rules for how the oceans will be share and governed.
HMAS Perth? Strangely, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta discover that the bell of the ship’s vessel had found in an Indonesian salvage yard in 1970. The bell was exchange by the embassy, which is now house in the Australian War Memorial. This small piece of history has been save by cultural diplomacy.
Our oceans’ cultural heritage and our relationship to them is essential. It is vital to understand the history of humanity’s relationship with oceans. Our oceans are our future, as is our history.