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Australia has some of the best legislation in the world that protects historic shipwrecks and underwater cultural heritage in its waters. Australian states and territories have heritage legislation to manage and protect maritime sites within their jurisdiction (on land and underwater). The Australian government also has legislation to manage and protect sites in Commonwealth waters (the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, which is presently under review).
Generally, across Australia all historic shipwrecks more than 75 years old (75 years since the date of wrecking), and their associated relics (whether in situ or recovered), are protected by legislation that prohibits any interference with them without a permit. This is known as blanket protection, and the ‘75 years’ is a rolling date. In some states, such as Victoria and Western Australia, other heritage sites such as aircraft and navigation aids, maritime archaeological sites on land, or terrestrial sites that are submerged, are also protected as archaeological heritage places. Click on the agency contact links to find out about historic shipwreck and maritime heritage legislation in your state.
The Australian goverment also has up to date information about historic shipwreck and maritime heritage legislation. Visit: www.environment.gov.au/heritage/shipwrecks/index.html for more information.
While archaeological excavation is a common method used by professional maritime archaeologists, it permanently and irretrievably changes a site because it disturbs the artefacts and their context. If all shipwrecks were fully excavated, much of their aesthetic, recreational and environmental values would be lost forever. Thus, excavation is usually limited to sites that have current potential to answer important research questions or which are under threat of destruction. It is important to note that individuals who are properly trained in archaeological methods (i.e. those with degrees in archaeology or maritime archaeology or with sufficient experience and recognition in this field) are required to oversee such excavations or disturbance to archaeological sites. Further, adequate resources must be available for controlled excavation; thorough finds recording and documentation must be carried out; and conservation and site stabilisation plans should be in place as well as plans for storage, interpretation and dissemination of the outcomes of the excavation to the public for an archaeological project to be considered ethical and archaeological. Also vital is the non-sale of artefacts excavated from a site (the sale of artefacts is known as commercial exploitation of peoples’ heritage and is considered unethical by the archaeological community).
Treasure hunting and commercial exploitation seek profit and not the scientific, historical and social value of underwater heritage – thus knowledge is lost when sites are not scientifically investigated. Damage by treasure hunting, looting and commercial exploitation include sites being left unmonitored and open to faster degradation, lack of or limited conservation for artefacts, further looting, vandalism, selective recovery of artefacts for sale, damage to hull structure to access cargo areas, and the division of complete artefact collections, all of which cause irreparable damage to our shared heritage. When portions of heritage are sold off and end up in private hands or collections, never to be viewed again by the public or become inaccessible for future research and reanalyses especially, as new methods and technology develop, we all lose.