Friday, November 26, 2004


Harris wants national showcase for Island’s underwater artefacts


The Royal Gazette
By Eloisa Mayers

A national collection of precious underwater artefacts should be established through legislation and made fully accessible to the public, according to a well-known local historian and archaeologist.

Executive director of the Maritime Museum, Dr. Edward Harris, told The Royal Gazette that recent amendments to the Historic Wrecks Act protect artefacts from treasure hunters.

But it is also hoped that community will eventually have access to a national collection where artefacts are showcased and preserved.

The Historic Wrecks Act was passed in 2001 and conforms with UNESCO’s Convention on underwater culture also adopted that year. After the act was tabled during the last Parliamentary session, Dr. Philippe Rouja, a custodian of Historic Wrecks, was appointed.

The custodian acts as a licensing authority to protect underwater artefacts. Recent changes in the act were the redefining a historic wreck as being of at least 50 years old, rather than 100, and the removal of provisions for financially compensating divers who recover objects from wrecks.

The bill protects historic artefacts from shipwrecks and forbids the disturbance of a site without a licence. After the initial bill was passed, the bill allowed for a six-month amnesty period for people to report artefacts already in their private collections, but which were collected without a licence.

Dr. Harris said the legislation was practical and forward thinking, but that having a digital collection is not a replacement for an established and active national collection of the real artefacts. The issue is increasingly important to historians, said Dr. Harris particularly since the Maritime Museum is planning to have a exhibit on shipwrecks late next year.

“Government needs to actually own and possess a national collection,” he said. “They must be artefacts that belong to the nation and to the community which are kept for everyone to view for the future.”

There are a couple of thousand precious artefacts in the Bermuda collection, according to Dr. Harris, but they have not yet been officially defined as a national collection.

Shadow Environment Minister Cole Simons also spotted loopholes in the legislation including the reporting of precious artefacts.

Mr. Simons said divers must be given incentives to report their underwater finds with a reward or a system for compensation. Mr. Simons contends this would ensure no artefacts go missing.

Dr. Rouja told The Royal Gazette that several hundred historical artefacts had been recently received and several members of the public have come forward allowing Government access to their private collections.

The present collection of underwater artefacts includes hundreds of pieces of precious objects on display at the Maritime Museum and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute.

“At the moment we’re building policies and procedures that do engage the public as protection of these items is very high on our list of priorities,” said Dr. Rouja.

“There will be a virtual collection whereby the objects are accessible and can go on loans to different museums.” Mr. Simons said a well-known local diver has told him not one new finding has been submitted for registration over the last three years.

He also called for marine policing and education, as well as policies or regulations that apply to divers from other jurisdictions who may uncover historical artefacts in Bermuda’s waters.

He suggested a Maritime Coast Guard be appointed to work with the Marine Police and monitor diving activities.“If they’re concerned about culture and the collection of these items, then divers must be reimbursed for the cost of going down to the wreck to retrieve the items and for having them authenticated,” said Mr. Simons.

“If the Government is serious about preserving history, like anything else, they must work with stakeholders to encourage them to bring their findings to the surface.”

Failing to ensure proper recovery of artefacts, according to Mr. Simons, could result in illegal activity. “At the end of the day you don’t know what’s out there,” he said. “There could be a black market on the artefacts. It is very important to provide incentives to encourage people to turn in their findings and at least you can reward them for recovering these treasures.”

Environment Minister Neletha Butterfield did not respond to calls for comment on this story.

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