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Protecting the Marine Historic Environment: Detecting, Investigating and Reducing Heritage Crime at Sea

By Mark Dunkley, Marine Listing Adviser, Historic England

The majority of these offences relate to the attempt to steal metal artefacts.

It's well established that the frequency of metal theft is linked to the mean price of metals. A higher price equates to a greater number of reported thefts, and vice versa.

This seemingly holds true for underwater cultural heritage: the widespread publicity afforded to the four criminal cases noted above (and their associated deterrent effect), coupled with a general climate of declining metal prices has resulted in a fall in the number of reported thefts from submerged archaeological sites in recent years.

Mark Dunkley
Mark Dunkley, a Marine Listing Adviser at Historic England

One of the biggest challenges in protecting underwater cultural heritage from uncontrolled salvage and theft lies in its remoteness - by their nature, shipwrecks tend to lie in areas hazardous to shipping and in locations not frequently visited or patrolled.

In order to facilitate security on some of the most important remains of our maritime past, we have established links with the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI - a voluntary charitable organisation providing a visual watch along UK coasts) and Project Kraken (a national scheme aimed at encouraging the reporting of suspicious behaviour at sea).

National Coastwatch Institution station surrounded by chain link fencing and with two cars parked outside.
National Coastwatch Institution station providing regular observation over remote areas of Portland, Dorset

We also use a developed network of affiliated volunteers, diving groups and mariners who all help in caring for our underwater heritage.

While Historic England does not have the capacity to mount patrols in order to monitor our marine heritage, other government departments and agencies do (such as the RN Fishery Protection Squadron and Border Force). We have therefore commissioned research in order to understand the full range of government marine capabilities so as to determine whether additional 'heritage protection' duties could be accommodated during routine patrols. This research is expected to conclude later this year.

A collection of First World War shell cases laid out on grass
In an attempt to salvage underwater metals for sale as scrap, divers are in danger of recovering live ordnance such as this collection of First World War shell cases that still contained primers for detonation © Historic England

Additionally, we've recently commissioned an innovative investigation into the provision of underwater forensic marking. This work builds on the well-established practice of marking property (for example, forensic tagging) which has led to a number of successful prosecutions. We intend to facilitate development of a methodology for marking archaeological artefacts underwater. Used in conjunction with more traditional crime prevention measures, this will prove a very effective theft deterrent.

Cannon on deck of ship
Cannon raised from the wreck of 'London' © Maritime & Coastguard Agency

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