Ancient shipwrecks declared part of English heritage

Shipwrecks and other historic sites off the English coast are to be protected from undersea gravel extraction, wind farms and other offshore projects for the first time.

Until now, the sites in British territorial waters, more than 30,000 in total, have been the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. From this summer, that duty is being handed to English Heritage, the government-financed quango responsible for ancient monuments and archaeology. The move is likely to lead to laws to protect Britain's maritime heritage.

The vast area of UK territorial seabed contains some 13,500 shipwrecks whose locations are plotted and about 16,500 unlocated wrecks known only from historical records. They include wrecks going back to the Bronze Age, and Roman and Elizabethan times, but the majority date from the 19th century.

Britain's marine heritage also contains the remains of 1,063 aircraft, mainly from the Second World War, as well as thousands of unlocated prehistoric archaeological sites, dating from the time when much of the seabed off the UK coast was dry land. These sites are threatened by gravel extraction companies, which are increasingly turning their attention to the seabed; offshore wind farms; commercial treasure hunters, who are using increasingly advanced wreck-locating and salvage technology; trawling;and waste disposal. At present 99.9 per cent of all known wrecks and other sites in British territorial waters have no legal or physical protection. English Heritage's new responsibilities will legally oblige it to "ensure the preservation of ancient monuments on, in and under the seabed" and "to encourage public understanding and appreciation" of England's undersea archaeological heritage.

Until now, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has limited itself to funding a restricted diving programme that investigates only a few dozen wrecks a year and to giving legal protection to 38 officially protected shipwrecks, a number that has grown only marginally in recent years.

The move announced yesterday, in effect, adds 18,000 square miles of seabed to the 50,000 on land for which English Heritage is already responsible.

If the organisation is to give the same attention to nautical archaeology as it does to archaeology on land, it will need several million pounds of additional funding. To the dismay of many in English Heritage, it is being given only between £200,000 and £250,000 per year.

David Miles, English Heritage's chief archaeologist, said the extra duties would present "a major new challenge for English Heritage. Britain's maritime heritage is one of the richest in the world with its long coastline, a long history of sea-faring and a vast number and variety of wrecks and buried landscapes".

English Heritage launched its proposals at Hurst Castle on the Solent, where research has shown that the undersea landscape is potentially one of the most important archaeological sites in the country.

It has already revealed evidence of human occupation 8,500 years ago and timbers from a prehistoric oak forest.

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