The New European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage

By Trotzig, Gustav | Antiquity, June 1993 | Go to article overview

The New European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage


Trotzig, Gustav, Antiquity


During the years of expansion following World War II which culminated in the 1980s, the problems of preserving and maintaining the archaeological heritage became increasingly apparent within the member-states of the Council of Europe. Ancient monuments and sites were being disturbed or destroyed by vast development schemes for roads, gas pipelines, urban centre renewal, intensive exploitation of natural resources, etc.

In 1989, against the background of these problems, the Committee of Ministers of the Council therefore adopted recommendations concerning the protection and enhancement of the archaeological heritage within the context of physical planning (No. R(89)5), based on experience up to that time and anxiety about the future. The work in drafting these recommendations turned attention to the possibility of producing a revised European Convention which would be mandatory upon the States party to it. The 1969 Convention had not predicted later developments in this field. A working group was therefore set up to draft the new Convention, consisting mainly of archaeologists and lawyers representing 16 member-states, assisted by the distinguished expert in the international law relating to this field, Dr Patrick J. O'Keefe, and with the benefit of intensive contributions by the secretariat of the Council of Europe. Following five formal meetings of the working group, a draft Convention was launched in 1991. Following some minor adjustments, it was adopted by the Council and presented for signing at a Conference of Ministers held in Malta in January 1992.

Like all international conventions it begins with a preamble in which, among other points, the importance of archaeology for the study of the prehistory and history of mankind is underlined. It also emphasizes the many threats to the heritage that become apparent as development schemes, along with natural hazards, increase. Perhaps the most important statement in the preamble is that the protection of the archaeological heritage 'should rest not only with the State directly concerned but with all European countries, the aim being to reduce the risk of deterioration and promote conservation by encouraging exchanges of experts and the comparison of experiences.'

It is not easy to formulate a good definition of the 'archaeological heritage.' The new Convention defines it as 'all remains and objects and any other traces of mankind from past epochs' which can illustrate the history of mankind and its relation to the natural environment. Of great importance is the new concept that such remains may be situated both on land and under water, which must be regarded as a major achievement. It means that even shipwrecks have found their way into the heritage as defined by the Convention. This has always been a highly contentious issue; it was one of the factors that led to the failure of the earlier 'Underwater Convention'.

Among the measures proposed for enhancing protection is the creation of legal instruments, listing protected areas and reserves. Another provision is that anyone who comes across an archaeological object is obliged to report the find to the relevant authorities. The States Party must also ensure that only competent persons are permitted to carry out archaeological excavations and non-destructive techniques must be used as far as possible, rather than excavation. The latter provision is rarely, if ever, applicable to rescue excavations, but it is a word of warning to over-zealous scholars, as are the stipulations that excavated remains should not be left exposed unless suitable measures for their protection have been taken and that archaeological finds and objects should be kept under the best possible conditions for their preservation.

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