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 » UNESCO concerned about damage to underwater archaeological site of the San José shipwreck in Panama
11.12.2015 - UNESCOPRESS

UNESCO concerned about damage to underwater archaeological site of the San José shipwreck in Panama

Paris, 11 December—The commercial exploitation of the wreck of the 17th century Spanish galleon San José, situated off the shores of Panama, failed to meet scientific standards causing considerable damage to its archaeological site, according to a report by UNESCO experts who visited the site in Las Perlas Archipelago.

The government of Panama voiced concern about the preservation of the site and invited the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage to send experts to Las Perlas. The experts visited the site in July and October this year and assessed activities undertaken since 2003 as part of the commercial exploitation of the galleon. 

“The archaeological survey methodology […] was not carried out according to current standards of professional archaeological practice,” the experts conclude, noting serious damage to the archaeological site. Thus, the use of propeller deflectors that generate powerful jets of water to “excavate” the site, has damaged both the archaeological heritage of the galleon and its natural environment. 

These methods are contrary to international standards as laid out in the Annex of UNESCO’s Convention that has been ratified by Panama, according to the report. 

The experts also noted that some of the artefacts the company in charge of the exploitation of the site presented as coming from the San José, probably date from a later period. In July this year, Panama’s National Directorate of Historcal Heritage moreover seized material coming from the galleon as they were about to be exported without the necessary permits. 

The exerts denounce the mercantile approach to the project, which focused exclusively on the search for material of commercial value. They recommend that all activities relating the underwater heritage be carried out in conformity with the principles of the UNESCO Convention, which prioritizes the protection of underwater archaeological sites. They also encourage the Panamanian authorities to promote a scientific approach to underwater archaeology and organize an exhibition about the remains of the San José

The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage seeks to ensure the safeguarding of submerged heritage and an end to commercial exploitation and pillaging of shipwrecks, notably by allowing the seizure of objects that have been pillaged. 

The Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of the Convention numbers 12 experts of international repute. Their role is to advise the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on scientific and technical questions. They also lend support to countries wishing to protect their submerged heritage.

The San José, a Spanish vessel built in 1611, was headed to Panama from the port of Callao in Peru when it sunk on 17 June 1631 after hitting the seabed. It was carrying a significant cargo of gold and silver.


UNESCO media contact: Agnès Bardon:  +33 (0) 1 45 68 17 64, a.bardon(at)unesco.org.

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