An ocean without history – the importance of underwater cultural heritage

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28 Jun 2017 16:41:53.993

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Healthy oceans are key to the future survival of the human race. As a result, looking after our oceans for future generations is high on the United Nation’s agenda, and now, an underwater archaeologist from the University of Nottingham is urging scientists to delve into the past to help better protect the oceans of the future.

Oceans and seas play a crucial role for human well-being and the environment as a whole. Covering more than 70 per cent of the surface of our plant, they provide half of the world’s oxygen, sequester carbon, and provide a home for 80 per cent of life on earth. Marine resources also provide food for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The strain on oceans is rapidly growing and its natural resources are being affected. Overfishing, loss of habitat, invasive species, pollution from nutrients and plastics, and climate change are all taking their toll.

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Our oceans, our future: partnering for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SGD14) is a target set by the UN to help reverse the decline in the health of our oceans for people, planet and prosperity. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are from the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, which commits the international community to tackle key challenges facing our planet and those who live on it.

Dr Jon Henderson from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham was part of the UNESCO delegation at the United Nations HQ in New York for the UN Oceans Conference earlier this month, which looked at how the SGD14 could be implemented.

Dr Henderson said: “The focus of SDG14 is very much on fighting human induced and natural threats to the ocean ecosystem. Practical scientific solutions to these threats are favoured but it is now becoming widely recognised that Arts and Humanities approaches also have a key role to play in the ensuring the effectiveness of those solutions. Purely scientific approaches run the danger of ignoring cultural sensitivities and traditions. Considering the marine heritage of coastal communities can inform potential solutions and ensure they fit into the existing social milieu and are therefore more likely to be accepted and supported by local communities.”

Rich marine heritage

At the conference, Dr Henderson presented on the role of marine cultural heritage in helping to achieve the aims of SDG 14 in a session entitled An Ocean Without History? – the Importance of Underwater Cultural Heritage.

He said: “It was very valuable to speak with UN officials, scientists and international ambassadors about the challenges facing marine communities worldwide. SDG14 has a focus on helping fishing communities develop sustainable economies without adversely affecting fish stocks. The communities are quite often surviving repositories of traditional knowledge and practice, maintaining craft traditions that have developed over centuries. Whilst the richness of their marine heritage demands to be understood and recorded, these communities are currently amongst the poorest in the world. Simple preservation of ways of life is not an option and would only serve to fossilise them in poverty. That said, development often results in the erosion of cultural traditions and heritage. One of the biggest challenges will be balancing preservation and development. This is not easy and will require anthropological work alongside the co-creation and co-production of solutions with the communities themselves.

“It would be very easy to go into small fishing villages and tell them how to make their processes more sustainable, but if this is something they have done for hundreds of years, and the new processes have no respect for their cultural heritage, then there is less chance that they will take on board the changes. Achieving successful sustainable economic development practices through a respect for communities and their past is key to achieving the aims of SDG14.

“Never has the relationship between cultural heritage and science been more valuable. Not only will this provide enhanced understanding of the past exploitation of marine resources and ecosystems, it will also provide insight into present and future use and management.” 

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Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…


Story credits

More information is available from Dr Jon Henderson in the Department of Archaeology, University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 951 4842,

Charlotte Anscombe – Media Relations Manager (Arts and Social Sciences)

Email:  Phone:+44 (0)115 74 84 417 Location: University Park

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