Protecting Underwater History
By By Pilar Franco*
Panama is the first country in the world to ratify the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
MEXICO CITY - The remnants of the past that lie in the depths of the sea in Panamanian waters are now covered by a law that protects the Central American nation's historic heritage, a legal tool aimed at recognizing the value of underwater archeology -- and blocking the way of treasure hunters.
Panama's Legislative Assembly on Jun. 30 incorporated subaquatic treasures into the category of national heritage. This was good news for archeologists who are keen on studying the cultural wealth submerged in the country's seas, lakes and rivers.
The areas declared archeological sites cover 30,000 square km on the ocean floor of the Pacific and Atlantic where artifacts can be found. The now-protected area holds vestiges of dozens of galleons of the Spanish and Portuguese armadas from the colonial era.
The new law annuls decrees that allowed the government to negotiate agreements with private companies to recover the sea treasures, Carlos Fitzgerald, director of historic heritage at the National Institute of Culture (INC), told Tierramérica.
Although the previous legislation prohibited artifact recovery permits that ran counter to international agreements on such matters, the decrees that have now been overturned had loopholes that benefited treasure hunters, noted the official.
The search for and research of cultural wealth under Panamanian waters should be carried out only by experts and for scientific means, added Fitzgerald.
Panama is the only country that has ratified the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, approved in 2001 and requiring the adhesion of 19 other countries to enter into force.
According to Pilar Luna, one of the few subaquatic archeologists in the region, it is a major achievement that at least one country has ratified the convention two years after its signing.
In the 23 years she has dedicated to the field, particularly in Mexico, which has more than 10,000 km of coastline, the submerged historic riches have revealed many secrets, Luna said in comments to Tierramérica.
For example, an atlas that is being drawn up since 1999 for the study of natural wells -- which are filled by springs -- and submerged caves in the Yucatán peninsula in southeast Mexico, home to the Maya civilization, uncovered remains of extinct animals, like the mammoth, and remnants of human activity from 10,000 years ago.
But "on ocean beds there are innumerable chapters to history that are waiting to be told," said Luna, assistant director of underwater archeology at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.
This field, which requires a multidisciplinary approach, seeks to uncover humanity's past through the study of artifacts, determining who used them, how, and whether the items were lost or thrown away.
At a depth of 40 meters in a natural well, or at 300 meters in a submerged cave, archeologist-divers face difficult work conditions: they have limited time to spend at the underwater site, visibility is poor, and they might be threatened by dangerous animals or water currents.
In addition to relying on related science fields, the archeologist-diver must undertake the "adventure" carrying double tanks of oxygen, lights, compass, pressure gauge, measuring tape, and even special paper and pencil to take notes under water.
"And one of our principles is to collect data on location without excavating, which is usually synonymous with destruction," Luna commented.
Currently, there are no underwater archeologists in panama. But new legislation has promoted the search for financial resources to launch the major project in the area: recover the vestiges of what is thought to be one of the caravels of the fourth and final voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, said Fitzgerald.
* Pilar Franco is a Tierramérica contributor.