What does Australia’s National Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018) Protect?

There has been a lot of focus on heritage legislation recently, both on land and under water. So let’s focus on the national law that protects Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH):

The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018).

‘This Act provides for the protection of Australia’s underwater cultural heritage.

Different kinds of articles of underwater cultural heritage are, or can be, protected, depending on the kinds of articles, their heritage significance and their location.’

Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018)

First, a few definitions regarding location – these are important to understand what is protected and where:

Australian waters = Coastal waters + Commonwealth waters, but not inland bodies of water such as rivers and lakes.

Coastal waters (of a State or Territory) = the water from a state’s coastal boundary out to the 3 nautical mile (nm) limit.

Commonwealth waters = Australian waters apart from Coastal waters of a State or Territory.

More detail on the different maritime zones are defined in the Act.

Second, the UCH Act offers two tiers of site protection: UCH that is automatically protected, and UCH that may be declared to be protected with ministerial approval.

So what is automatically protected by the UCH Act (2018) ? Here it is:

All vessels that have been in Australian (ie. Coastal or Commonwealth) waters for 75 years or more are automatically protected by the Act. A 75 year old sunken shipwreck whether it is found near the beach, or offshore on Australia’s continental shelf, is protected automatically by the UCH Act. Sunken aircraft located in Commonwealth waters are also protected automatically by the Act.

Heritage located under water within 0-3 nm Coastal waters zone, may also be protected by the policies of each individual State or the NT, and the details of protection vary in each State or Territory.

Indigenous archaeological sites discovered on the seabed, whether in Coastal or Commonwealth waters are not automatically protected in the same way that historic shipwrecks are protected by the UCH Act (2018).

Protection of Indigenous sites in Coastal waters would therefore defer fist to the individual State’s heritage laws to protect a site located in the 0-3 nm Coastal waters zone. The Federal UCH Act could potentially protect Indigenous sites in Australian waters (Coastal or Commonwealth waters), but only ‘if the Minister is satisfied that the article is of heritage significance’. This has yet to be tested.

Australia’s UCH Act (2018) diverges from the UNESCO Convention on the protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001) which is widely referred to as global Best Practice. The UNESCO (2001) Convention defines Underwater Cultural Heritage as ‘all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years …’

UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001)

There are different mechanisms to protect Indigenous heritage under water and the individual state heritage laws serve as the primary mechanism that would be protect Indigenous UCH in Coastal waters. Any Indigenous sites found in Commonwealth waters could be protected, but only with ministerial approval.

However, the Australian federal law that “provides for the protection of Australia’s underwater cultural heritage” does not automatically protect Indigenous UCH in Australian waters.

That is, unless… Indigenous material culture was present onboard a historic vessel when it sank. Then the Indigenous artefacts would be automatically protected… because of their association with the historic shipwreck.

Archaeologist Jerem Leach identifies a stone artefact at 14m depth in Flying Foam Passage (Photo: H. Yoshida)

A multi-scalar approach to marine survey and underwater archaeological site prospection in Murujuga, Western Australia

Article published in Quaternary International


During the past 20,000 years approximately one-quarter of the continental landmass of Australia was inundated by postglacial sea-level rise, submerging archaeological evidence for use of these landscapes. Underwater archaeological sites can offer substantial insights into past lifeways and adaptations to rapidly changing environments, however the vast scale of inundation presents a range of challenges in discovering such sites. Here we present a suite of methods as a model methodology for locating sites in submerged landscapes. Priority areas for survey were based on palaeoenvironmental contexts determined from the onshore archaeological record. Remote sensing was used to identify seabed composition and indicators of palaeolandscapes where high potential for human occupation and site preservation could be identified in Murujuga (or the Dampier Archipelago), northwestern Australia. Target locations were surveyed by scientific divers to test for the presence of archaeological material. Application of this methodology resulted in the discovery of the first two confirmed sub-tidal ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites on Australia’s continental shelf. Survey methods are discussed for their combined value to identify different classes of landscapes and archaeological features to support future underwater site prospection.

New article by Wiseman et al. published in Quaternary International (Photo: S. Wright)

Link to the article: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1040618220305383?via%3Dihub

DHSC Research Impacts Featured in New York Times: Australia’s Oil Industry Faces New Indigenous Heritage Test


MELBOURNE — A discovery of ancient artefacts on the seabed off Australia’s west coast has opened up a new frontier for resource companies to watch out for in conserving indigenous heritage.

Archaeologists in July reported they had found hundreds of stone tools submerged off the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia, showing evidence of people living in the area when it was dry land more than 7,000 years ago.

Full article is here: