UNESCO's actions in favour of the protection of underwater cultural heritage

UNESCO guides Member States in the ratification process of the 2001 Convention as well as in its national implementation, fostering international cooperation to improve the protection of underwater cultural heritage worldwide. In order to encourage high ethical standards, the Secretariat of the 2001 Convention organizes training workshops with underwater cultural heritage officials in all regions of the world on the Convention and the protection of underwater heritage. It also actively assists States in the harmonization of their laws. Practical tools available in Resources are made available to Member States to support their efforts.

Institutional, human and legal capacity building

In order to obtain adequate protection, ensure conservation and encourage research of underwater heritage, UNESCO collaborates with trained experts who, in accordance with the appropriate legal frameworks, protect the sites concerned.

For example, the Secretariat of the 2001 Convention, UNESCO field offices and their partners, including the UNITWIN network of universities for underwater archaeology and the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar, Croatia, under the auspices of UNESCO, and many others, regularly organize capacity-building and training activities to raise awareness and train professionals. Finally, many initiatives have been put in place to raise awareness among tourists and the tourism industry.

Awareness-raising activity

In recent years, underwater cultural heritage has attracted increasing attention from both the scientific community and the general public. For scientists, it represents an invaluable source of information on ancient civilizations, maritime practices, human use of land and marine environments and climate change. For the general public, it offers an opportunity to understand its history, to pass on the memory of it to future generations, to strengthen its sense of community and to develop a sustainable tourism economy.

UNESCO has developed awareness-raising activities targeting all these stakeholders - members of the scientific community, heritage managers, the general public and local communities.

Furthermore, the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage encourages responsible public access to underwater cultural heritage sites. In order to promote best practices in the protection and management of underwater cultural heritage, the Meeting of States Parties designates Best Practices every two years upon proposal by States Parties. Finally, the Secretariat organizes exhibitions around the world to increase the visibility of underwater cultural heritage and to raise awareness of its importance and the need to protect it.

The Secretariat of the 2001 Convention has also developed various tools for children and teachers to make young people aware of the importance of underwater cultural heritage and the need to protect it. Among these tools, you can download our manual for teachers.

The Missions of the STAB

The Scientific and Technical Advisory Body to the 2001 UNESCO Convention provides advice and assistance to the Meeting of States Parties on technical and scientific issues relating to underwater heritage.

For example, it has developed a Code of ethics for diving in protected sites, which now applies to all divers in States Parties or nationals of States Parties. It has also made concrete recommendations on how to review national legislation protecting underwater cultural heritage, recommending, among others, the adoption of clear national rules for the authorization of interventions, the establishment of mandatory cooperation of different institutions, the adoption of guidelines for the establishment of a national inventory, etc.

States Parties which lack underwater archaeologists, but are confronted with problems due to fortuitous discoveries, treasure hunting or scientific doubts, can call upon STAB. Indeed, the STAB assists States with practical advice, but can also come to assess a site or an issue through a mission. Missions are carried out with the approval of the Meeting of States Parties or its Bureau. 


The UNESCO mission to Haiti, sent to investigate a wreck that the American explorer Barry Clifford had proposed as potentially being that of the flagship of Christopher Columbus, has confirmed that the wreck site is not that of the Santa Maria. Nails and pins found on-site were those of a more recent ship, being of a copper alloy, while the Santa Maria should have had iron and/or wood fasteners.

Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus’ flagship during his first expedition to the Americas, is potentially the most important cultural heritage of the early period of contact between Europe and the Americas. According to Columbus’ diary, it was on the night of 24/25 December 1492 that the Santa Maria was pushed onto a reef near Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.

Earlier this year, Barry Clifford, an underwater explorer, claimed that a shipwreck on Gran Mouton Reef, Haiti (the exact place being called Coque Vieille Reef), might be that of the Santa Maria. Following Clifford’s announcement, the Ministry of Culture of Haiti had requested the assistance of the UNESCO Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Its twelve experts were asked to verify the identification of the site and to create a national plan for the protection of and research into underwater cultural heritage in the waters of Haiti.

The team of experts sent to Haiti was headed by the internationally acclaimed underwater archaeologist Xavier Nieto Prieto, former head of the Spanish National Museum on Underwater Archaeology. It also included UNESCO staff, as well as experts from the Haitian Ministry of Culture.

The UNESCO mission recorded the site with the most advanced methods available and recovered a small sample of diagnostic artefacts that allowed the site to be dated. It also investigated a number of nearby wreck sites shown to be of the highest potential for scientific research. Moreover, the team contributed to increasing the safety of the sites in the bay by causing the arrest of a pillager.

The evidence collected concerning the location, nature and artefact content of the Coque Vieille site was then subjected to thorough investigation by an acclaimed team of experts.  Additional reputed international experts were consulted. The written report of this investigative mission was then adopted by the UNESCO Scientific and Technical Advisory Body.

The Advisory Body, in addition to rejecting the identification of the wreck site’s identification as Santa Maria, recommended a large, more thorough investigation of the archaeological sites around Cap-Haïtien, both on land and underwater. Such an investigation should contribute to the development of a national plan on underwater cultural heritage, as requested by the Minister of Culture of Haiti. The UNESCO experts recommended, moreover, a revision of national laws and strong measures to prevent the pillaging and destruction of underwater cultural heritage.

The UNESCO 2001 Convention is of central importance for underwater archaeology and comprehensively protects underwater cultural heritage against pillage and exploitation and guides its scientific research.

Mission Report


A recent mission of the UNESCO Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) to Madagascar verified the status of the historic wrecks near Sainte Marie Island and evaluated an excavation, which had resulted in the announcement of the discovery of a possible silver ingot allegedly found on the Adventure Galley, a shipwreck associated with the pirate William Kidd.

The mission showed that several historic wrecks lie indeed in the bays of Sainte-Marie Island. However, what had been identified as the Adventure Galley of the pirate Captain Kidd has been found by the experts of the STAB to be a broken part of the Sainte-Marie port constructions. No ship remains have been found. Also the metal ingot, recovered apparently from the above site, is not a ‘silver treasure’, but is constituted of 95 % lead. It does not contain silver and has been identified as a lead-ballast piece.

“In fact the real news is not that there is no silver treasure,” says Michel L’Hour, Chief of the UNESCO STAB mission, “but that someone assists the government and checks on its behalf. The creation of a Scientific Advisory Body by States, which have agreed on the best standards in underwater archaeology by adopting the UNESCO 2001 Convention, that is really new." The Advisory Body joins the most reliable experts in the domain and assists States that have ratified the Convention on their request.

Other results of the mission show that what has been identified as the remains of a Dutch pirate ship presumably the Fiery Dragon, are in fact the remains of a large Asian ship, most likely build in India, and looted by pirates and then abandoned in the bay. Artefacts recovered from that Asian wreck in 2010, in particular several gold coins, that would facilitate the identification of the site, are, however, absent from the site inventories and the museum. Moreover the recovery, inventory, storage and conservation of the finds have been made in an unscientific manner, leading to damage to the scientific record of the sites and making it more difficult to understand their historic background.

For any further research the STAB recommends to follow closely the regulations of the Annex of the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and to only permit interventions by a competent team led by a qualified underwater archaeologist.

Mission Report


A UNESCO expert mission visited Panama during the first two weeks of July, and then again from 21 - 29 October 2015, at the request of the government of Panama. The mission examined the state of the supposed site of the San José shipwreck, a Spanish galleon that sank in the archipelago of Las Perlas in the 17th century. A commercial company, Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo (IMDI), had been salvaging the shipwreck since 2003.

The mission was undertaken by the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This Advisory Body is a crucial organ of the 2001 UNESCO Convention. Consisting of 12 elite experts in underwater archaeology and related fields, its core responsibility is to provide advice to States Parties in questions of a scientific or technical nature related to underwater cultural heritage. States that lack underwater archaeologists, but face problems due to chance discoveries, treasure-hunting or scientific doubts, can call on the UNESCO STAB for assistance.

The question posed by Panama was if IMDI, the commercial firm working on the wreck site, had respected applicable archaeological standards in its work on the San José, standards laid down in the 2001 UNESCO Convention. The Convention forbids, among other things, the commercial exploitation of underwater heritage, and requires that work has to be overseen by a competent archaeologist and should not be unnecessarily destructive. The findings have to be scientifically documented and artefacts conserved.

The STAB Mission members for the Panama mission were Xavier Nieto Prieto (Spain), Dolores Elkin (Argentina) and Helena Barba Meinecke (Mexico), accompanied by the Professor of Law, Mariano Aznar, all highly experienced senior experts. In cooperation with Panamanian experts, the experts first assessed all recovered artefacts during the June mission and then in October visited the site of the wreck of the San José to evaluate the work carried out by IMDI.

The artefacts recovered from the site by IMDI were coins, pottery and ferrous materials. The coins were seized as IMDI attempted to take them covertly out of Panama. The site is of great historic importance for Panama. If the artefacts can be kept in Panama, they could become part of a museum exhibition.

Mission Report


First joint STAB/ICOMOS Advisory Mission to a World Heritage property carried out within the framework of the World Heritage Convention and the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

The World Heritage property "Ancient City of Nessebar" (Bulgaria) hosted an Advisory Mission invited by the Bulgarian authorities and carried out jointly by experts of the UNESCO Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) to the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and ICOMOS International (Advisory Body to the World Heritage Committee). The mission experts assessed the state of conservation of the property, including the underwater archaeological remains, and provided capacity building for Bulgarian experts in coastal management and in the preparation of Heritage Impact Assessments for World Heritage properties. The mission took place from 28 November to 3 December 2017.

The mission experts examined existing and proposed projects and developments within the boundaries of the Ancient City of Nessebar and its buffer zone, including in the territorial waters of the peninsula, and provided preliminary insights on the scope of analysis needed to assess their impacts.

The STAB experts conducted an underwater survey of archaeological remains and provided recommendations for additional research that may be needed to appraise the archaeological potential of the submerged setting of Nessebar and assess measures to be undertaken to minimize impacts on the submerged remains, in line with Article 5 of the 2001 Convention.

The state of conservation of the property will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its 43rd session in 2019.

Mission Report


The UNESCO Mission was carried out in response to the request made by the Government of Guatemala to the Meeting of States Parties in its sixth session, and as approved by RESOLUTION 10 / MSP 6. The request called for the intervention of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) of the 2001 UNESCO Convention, to resolve the conflict generated around the underwater archaeological site known until now as "Samabaj", located in Lake Atitlán, Department of Sololá, Guatemala. The site had been subject to various interventions by diver Roberto Samayoa and archaeologist Sonia Medrano, which generated disinformation and discontent in the community of Santiago de Atitlán.
After an extended period of negotiations, it was agreed that the STAB Mission would be carried out in two stages.

The first one, which took place between 16 and 21 September 2019, was to focus on mediation and establishing a close relationship with the indigenous authorities of Santiago de Atitlán and the communities surrounding the lake, in order to demonstrate the common commitment to the protection, conservation, research, dissemination and enhancement of the underwater archaeological site, and to establish a framework of sustainability and good governance.
In addition, the communication procedures to be followed in the future were defined in order to ensure that the Indigenous Authority and the community, it represents, is permanently informed.

This engagement, to in future always consult the local communities in archaeological projects, was underlined by the Ministry of Culture of Guatemala, changing the approach to this matter in the country. Indeed, one of the main requests on the part of the Indigenous Authority was to be kept informed of the details of the steps and archaeological work to be carried out in Lake Atitlán, always with an effort to ensure transparency. The IDAEH authorities were also asked to take action to definitively suspend the extraction of archaeological objects from the sites, to recover the collection of artefacts currently still housed in a privately operated Lake Museum of Atitlán, which is located in the community of Panajachel. They were also asked to return the pieces that are held under IDAEH protection in Guatemala City to Santiago de Atitlán.

During this first stage of the STAB Mission, a visit was made to Lake Atitlán, carrying out surface reconnaissance in the area where underwater archaeological sites may be located. The UNESCO  Mission, the Guatemalan authorities and several members of the Mayan community of Santiago de Atitlán participated in the survey. Throughout the activity, a contact had been established with local fishers who provided useful information regarding activities carried out by allegedly illegal divers and related to the submerged archaeological remains.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that during the period in which the UNESCO Mission in Guatemala was developed, Archaeologists Barba, Elkin and Delaere began the general planning for the realization of the second stage of the STAB Mission. This second stage will be focused on field work in Lake Atitlán, in order to carry out the registration and survey of the existing sites, using among other 3D digital technology. During this last day of stay in Guatemala City, the opportunity was taken to establish contact with one of the companies that provides diving services.

In summary, the UNESCO Mission to Guatemala reached an extremely positive result, a success that was achieved thanks to the excellent interaction, transparency and goodwill of each and every one of the actors involved.
The stage of mediation activity consisted of an informative and consent meeting with the official Indigenous Authority, led by Mr. Nicolás Sapalú Toj, Head of the Mayan Tz'utujil Community of Santiago de Atitlán. The main point of the mediation stage was to explain the objective of the Mission and some concepts related to 2001 Convention of UNESCO and its Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) and for the Indigenous Authority to ask questions as well as to propose a series of agreements. Furthermore, it provided some comparative examples and experiences of underwater archaeological work, highlighting potential benefits and applicability in Atitlan through a possible collaborative work path.

Having reached an agreement among the Indigenous Authority, UNESCO and the Minister of Culture of Guatemala, the meeting ended with the express consent of the Indigenous Authority to continue with the second stage of the STAB Mission, the date of which is to be defined. The mission’s main objective will be the registration, analysis and evaluation of the underwater archaeological sites in Lake Atitlán.

Mission Report