• The Arsenal of the Granaries on Ołowianka Island is closed until May 12, 2024, due to preparations for the new temporary exhibition
• The "Motława" ferry does not operate due to the river embankment renovation until further notice
• The Crane remains closed to visitors due to renovations - read

Protection of Poland’s Underwater Cultural Heritage from the Perspective of the Guidelines of the UNESCO 2001 Convention – History and Future Prospects

Ever since the invention of the world’s first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan in 1943, humanity has been able to penetrate hitherto inaccessible parts of the underwater world. Advancements in diving technology have led to the discovery of numerous important underwater heritage objects, and the use of underwater vessels combined with a series of technological innovations developed in the last twenty-five years have allowed humans to explore the depths of the seas and oceans and reach previously impossible depths. A negative consequence of this accessibility of underwater areas has been the destruction of the natural and cultural environments found there. In the process of searching for such treasures as shipments of fine china[1], Spanish gold[2] and bottles of wine and champagne routinely found in the Baltic Sea[3], the wrecks of the ships, which constitute a unique source of knowledge on the development of shipbuilding and long-range trade contacts, are inevitably becoming damaged. The demand for military memorabilia and souvenirs from vessels sunk during World War II not only leads to those vessels being looted, but also to the desecration of the resting places of thousands of victims[4]. The hulls of metal vessels are disassembled to be sold for scrap by divers searching for precious metals as well as by businesses specialising in salvaging steel. Apart from intentional acts, shipwrecks are also damaged by accident. Their integrity is compromised by trawl nets dragged along the sea floor, and seabed resource extraction and the deepening of water bodies without previous research may potentially lead to irreversible loss of yet-undiscovered underwater cultural heritage assets – particularly those related to the earliest settlements in human history.

The need to protect underwater cultural heritage (UCH) was initially identified in the 1970s, with the first documents on underwater site protection being drafted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. As these documents were only guidelines, they could be treated as mere recommendations to be taken into account by national legislative bodies[5]. The first time that the protection of sites of archaeological and historical significance found on the sea floor became an obligation was the proclamation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1982[6]. The document stipulates that, due to the fact that a large portion of UCH assets are located outside the jurisdiction of any country, the protection of such heritage should be subject to international regulations. The creation of such regulations was preceded by more than twenty years of deliberations[7]. These resulted in the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, proclaimed by in Paris on 2 November 2001. Its main goal is to protect UCH in situ, i.e. on the sea floor, in its natural context, where it has been present for at least 100 years. The convention binds its signatories, requiring them to use their best efforts to prevent direct threats to UCH assets. Extracting a heritage asset above the surface is only permissible if its preservation in its original location is either impossible or threatens its existence, and any research must be as non-invasive as possible, as well as being conducted with respect for human remains. Heritage assets extracted from the sea floor must be stored, conserved and managed in such a way as to ensure their long-term preservation, and legally may not be traded as commercial goods. In relation to exclusive economic zones, the convention requires that parties protect underwater cultural heritage and inform the UNESCO Director-General and other parties about the existence of such heritage. In the case of a verifiable cultural, historical or archaeological link between a discovered asset and another country, that country is entitled to act as a consultant for the purpose of ensuring the effective protection of the asset. Any actions related to ships and aircraft constituting state property (and which meet the criteria of underwater cultural heritage) may be taken only with the approval of their owner state. An integral part of the convention is the attached set of Rules concerning activities directed at underwater cultural heritage, which also set the international standards for handling UCH[8].

In Poland, underwater heritage protection laws were first introduced in 2003. The Act on heritage protection and heritage preservation is the first legal act that acknowledges the existence and prescribes the protection of sites located in inland waters and on the sea floor. According to the act, underwater heritage assets may be classified as historically, scientifically or artistically significant, regardless of the length of time they have remained underwater[9]. This stipulation also extends the protection to assets which are newer than those protected under the UNESCO convention. UCH assets located in inland waters are treated identically to those located on land. However, the same does not apply to assets located on the seabed. All actions taken in Polish maritime areas are subject to the provisions of the Act on the maritime areas of the Republic of Poland and maritime administration, heritage assets located in inland and territorial maritime areas are subject to both maritime law and monument protection provisions. Any action related to a heritage asset thus requires the approval of the head of the maritime office having jurisdiction over the area, which is issued in consultation with the voivodeship conservator of monuments[10]. Due to the fact that the Polish conservation service does not have separate departments responsible for UCH protection, in 2005, the Voivode of Pomerania, upon the request of the Pomeranian Voivodeship Conservator of Monuments, tasked the head of the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk with discussing with the head of the Gdynia Maritime Office the possibility of conducting archaeological research and searching for cultural heritage in the sea areas adjacent to Pomeranian Voivodeship[11].

Actions of the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk Related to the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage

Since its establishment, the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk (NMM) has been involved in various wreck discoveries made in the Gulf of Gdańsk. In order to study these wrecks, the museum established the Department of Underwater Research. For the purpose of securing objects recovered from wrecks, the Department of Museum Exhibit Conservation was formed, later transformed into the Shipwreck Conservation Centre in Tczew – one of Europe’s largest conservation workshops. The museum’s long-time partnership with maritime administrators (as well as institutions responsible for safe sailing and maritime rescue), aimed at discovering wrecks and identifying seabed obstacles in the waters adjacent to Pomeranian Voivodeship, has led to the establishment of the database Ewidencja Podwodnych Stanowisk Archeologicznych (Registry of Underwater Archaeological Sites). The resulting hydroacoustic and photogrammetric documentation of underwater assets is used to monitor the status of wrecks and can serve to assess any losses and damage sustained by them. A years-long inventorying project resulted in the addition of the Gulf of Gdańsk Virtual Open-Air Shipwreck Museum[12] to the NMM website, which is a gallery of three-dimensional models of underwater archaeological sites.

Wreck of a 16/17th century ore carrier, by T. Bednarz and K. Treder
Wreck of a 16/17th century ore carrier, by T. Bednarz and K. Treder

In later years, the NMM also drew attention to the necessity of adapting the Archaeological Monument Registry Card template to the nature of maritime administration and underwater heritage, which had hitherto been excluded from voivodeship monument registries due to format incompatibility[13].

The NMM also works in partnership with foreign institutions – in 2001, it launched a joint project aimed at protecting the Baltic UCH together with members of the Baltic Region Heritage Committee[14], founded in 1998 by ministers from the Baltic area states and Norway. From 2013 to 2015, the UCH group was headed by Iwona Pomian. That is when the topic of UCH protection was first analysed as part of spatial planning discussions. Although, out of all the members of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, only Lithuania and Estonia have so far ratified the UNESCO 2001 Convention, the efforts of the council still primarily revolve on implementing its guidelines[15]. The NMM participated in several major projects related to the subject. In 2006, the NMM and the Polish Geological Institute joined the EU project MACHU: Managing Cultural Heritage Underwater, whose goal is to identify paleolandscapes and potential archaeological sites related to the earliest human settlements in the Baltic area[16]. From 2014 to 2016, together with the Estonian National Heritage Board and the Swedish National Maritime Museums, the NMM participated in the project Evaluating the Universal Value of the Submerged Heritage of the Baltic Sea, whose purpose was to develop criteria for entering maritime archaeological sites from the Baltic area into the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. Between 2017 and 2020, together with experts from other Baltic area states, the museum worked on the programme BalticRIM – Baltic Sea Region Maritime Cultural Heritage Management, whose goal was to incorporate cultural heritage into the process of developing spatial plans for the Baltic Sea.

These initiatives led to the incorporation of UCH protection in a 2021 regulation of the Council of Ministers that introduced the 1:200,000 Scale Spatial Management Plan for Inland Waters, the Territorial Sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone[17]. This document is particularly important due to the fact that the protection extends not only to known heritage sites. The UCH protection measures also encompass yet-undiscovered heritage assets that remain in marine sediments, and require that non-invasive studies be conducted before launching any project that may alter the structure of the seabed.

The document also defines a body of water referred to as the Wreck Storage Area (Magazyn Wraków). Defining such an area was necessitated by the need to provide space for storing and securing large-size heritage assets whose protection in situ would not be possible due to planned construction projects. The conservation time and costs as well as the space required to store such assets render them difficult to preserve for future generations. The area already contains a wreck of the Swedish ship Solen, sunk in 1627 during the Battle of Oliwa and studied in the 1980s, as well as the wreck of a trade ship transported there in 2005. Assets added in recent years include 18th-century ship cannons recovered from the bottom of the Baltic Sea and a keelson from the early 16th century, discovered in the Port of Gdynia approach fairway. Due to the planned expansion of the Port of Gdańsk, it will be necessary to transport more endangered wrecks, all of which are structurally unique exhibits.

In the past, the NMM has also been involved in numerous initiatives aimed at raising awareness of the UNESCO convention and UCH protection. The year 2010 saw two international workshops on underwater archaeology being organised by the Polish Committee for UNESCO, and the Polish translation of the convention was made available as a brochure at NMM branches. From 2016, Iwona Pomian (then-head of the Underwater Research Department) participated in meetings of parties to the 2001 Convention at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris as an expert of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and observer. Iwona Pomian is also a co-author of the first UNESCO Manual for activities directed at underwater cultural heritage: guidelines to the Annex of the UNESCO 2001 Convention[18].

Poland Ratified the UCH protection convention on 17 May 2021[19]. In June of the same year, the Minister of Culture, National Heritage and Sport entrusted the Director of the NMM with the promotion of heritage sites located within the maritime areas belonging to the Republic of Poland and organising training courses on UCH protection, in addition to the issuing of approvals for maritime construction projects and contributing to the development of Polish maritime spatial management plans. The NMM was tasked with maintaining a database of UCH assets located in all Polish maritime areas, cataloguing and monitoring them on an ongoing basis and providing help to voivodeship conservators attempting to inspect such sites.

For this purpose, the NMM established a new subunit – the Maritime Cultural Heritage Protection Section. With regard to administrative and conservation efforts, more than 220 maritime construction permits were issued within a period of 2 years, illustrating the scale of recent construction projects, which primarily revolve around renewable energy sources and port expansion. As the NMM had no access to a research vessel for several years, the Underwater Research Department acquired a RIB-type boat. Due to the need to catalogue wrecks primarily in areas which are to be used for construction, and which are also located within the exclusive economic zone, partnerships have been established with maritime universities – the University of Gdańsk and the Maritime University of Szczecin – both of which possess research vessels and seabed research equipment capable of reaching depths inaccessible to NMM archaeologists.

In December 2021, during the Public Access to Underwater Cultural Heritage conference organised to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Convention, the NMM presented its UCH popularisation and protection efforts to other UNESCO members for the very first time. The year 2022 saw the launch of the two-year project Polish-Croatian Exchange of Experience on the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage[20]. Its goal is to promote Polish underwater cultural heritage in the Adriatic area and to facilitate the sharing of experiences between Croatia and Poland with regard to wreck protection, underwater archaeology and asset conservation. The Croatian partner in the project is the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar – a Category 2 UNESCO centre[21]. In the autumn of 2022, with the support of the Polish Embassy in Zagreb, an open-air exhibition was organised in the capital of Croatia, titled Underwater archaeology in Poland. History and perspectives. In the spring of 2023, to celebrate the second anniversary of Poland’s ratification of the 2001 Convention, the exhibition was presented in the Paris UNESCO headquarters, and later also at a meeting of parties to the 2001 Convention on 13 June 2023. During that meeting, the head of the NMM, Dr Robert Domżał, was elected as the first Polish member of the convention’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB). This nomination is proof of Poland’s standing within UNESCO and our the global respect for our knowledge and experience with regard to UCH protection.

Meeting of the parties to the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, Paris, 12 June 2023. Polish representatives: Robert Domżał (National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk), Mariusz Lewicki (Permanent Representative of the Republic of Poland to UNESCO), Teresa Mikulska (Ministry of Culture and National Heritage). Photo by: Ł. Winny
Meeting of the parties to the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, Paris, 12 June 2023. Polish representatives: Robert Domżał (National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk), Mariusz Lewicki (Permanent Representative of the Republic of Poland to UNESCO), Teresa Mikulska (Ministry of Culture and National Heritage). Photo by: Ł. Winny
Challenges to Protecting Underwater Cultural Heritage in Polish Maritime Areas

Although Poland has seen much success in implementing the guidelines of the 2001 Convention, a great deal of effort is still required in the area of UCH protection.

More than 140 historic shipwrecks that lie along the Polish Baltic coast have been catalogued so far by the NMM, serving as proof of intensive trade contacts between Poland and various regions of Europe from the Middle Ages to modern times. This is in addition to scattered sunken settlements and ports, as well as 170 sites which are yet to be verified. The inventorying and documentation process extends not only to UCH assets located in areas selected as construction sites. As demonstrated by the events in Ukraine of the past more than ten months, documenting heritage sites using the latest spatial reconstruction technologies may be the only option as far as preserving heritage for future generations is concerned. Inventorying and documentation efforts should encompass all UCH assets in Polish maritime areas.

Considering the fact that there are approximately 10 underwater archaeologists (including 4 from the NMM) currently active in Poland, these efforts will require years to complete. The lack of specialists in the Baltic area[22] necessitates the organisation of training courses on underwater archaeology targeted at amateur divers. This form of UCH protection popularisation is employed by such institutions as the Norwegian Maritime Museum. An opportunity to establish a training centre, possibly with the support of UNESCO (as in the case of the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar) presents itself in the form of the new NMM branch that is currently under construction in Łeba – the Museum of Underwater Archaeology and Baltic Fisheries, which will feature a conference section and the necessary logistical facilities. Such a centre could train divers from Poland as well as other Baltic area states.

Considering the fact that a large portion of underwater cultural heritage is located at great depths[23], it will be necessary to develop methodology for conducting research with the exclusive use of remotely operated underwater vehicles. Deep-sea archaeological research utilising only ROVs is already being conducted in Norway[24] and France[25].

To protect heritage sites in their natural environments, many countries have introduced underwater cultural parks as a form of protection. In the following years, the NMM plans to make the Underwater Wreck Storage Area available to visitors. It will also be used as a training area for underwater archaeology and modern documentation techniques, as well as a research site for interdisciplinary studies on the impact of environmental factors on the condition of wooden and metal heritage assets.

It is also necessary to resume training courses on contactless forms of underwater tourism for diving clubs and tourism business owners, which have been offered in the past by the NMM. Establishing partnerships with divers may lead to raising the public’s involvement in UCH protection and monitoring, as well as facilitating the collection of information on yet-undiscovered shipwrecks. It also appears that it is necessary to introduce training programmes on the research value of UCH for businesses involved in maritime construction projects, as well as the courses on the necessity and means of protecting underwater heritage assets. Initiating a series of training programmes on the characteristics of underwater cultural heritage and assets recovered from underwater areas will be of utility to the Police, Border Guard and lower-level maritime administrators.

An important issue is supporting legislative initiatives aimed at strengthening UCH protection, most importantly in the form of changes to the Act on the maritime areas of the Republic of Poland and maritime administration, whose article 35, Tourism and Water Sports, legally allows for shipwrecks to be searched (Journal of Laws of 2022, item 457), which contradicts the rules of contactless underwater tourism and the guidelines of the 2001 Convention.

In the last 20 years, Poland has been slowly implementing the 2001 Convention guidelines on UCH protection. As a result, two years after its ratification, we are in the process – not in the early stages – of constructing a system of UCH management centred around preserving our heritage for future generations on the one hand, and around utilising these assets for economic development on the other.

Author: Anna Rembisz-Lubiejewska PhD

The project “Polish-Croatian exchange of experience in the scope of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage” is co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage within the framework of the “Inspiring culture” programme.


[1] Kobyliński Z. 2002, Konwencja o ochronie podwodnego dziedzictwa kulturowego, ‘Ochrona zabytków’, issue 55/2, pp. 142–143.

[2] Gold J., de Cabo E. 2014, España gana el caso Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes: un éxito jurídico, histórico y cultural, [in:] El ultimo viaje de la Fregata Mercedes. La razon frente al. expolio. Un tesoro cultural recuperado, Madrid, pp. 25–34.

[3] Hoffman A. 2015, 170-Year-Old Champagne Recovered (and Tasted) From a Baltic Shipwreck, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-and-tasted-baltic-shipwreck-180955050/ – accessed on 02/08/2023. Gattuso R. 2019. For Sale: 300-Year-Old ‘Shipwreck Wine’ Rescued From the Bottom of the Sea, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/can-wine-survive-shipwreck, accessed on 02/08/2023.

[4] Kowalski W. 2012, World War II wrecks in Polish waters. Current problems of legal protection, [in:] J. Henderson (ed.), IKUWA 3: Beyond Boundaries. The 3rd International Congress on Underwater Archaeology, Bonn, pp. 89–94.

[5] Recommendation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Underwater Cultural Heritage of 1978 (no. 848) and 2000 (no. 1486), and the International Charter on the Protection and Management of Underwater Cultural Heritage, drafted by ICOMOS and ratified in Sofia in 1996. (Kobyliński Z. 2002, op. cit. p. 142; Maarleverld T., Guérin U., Egger B. (eds.), 2013, Manual for activities directed at underwater cultural heritage: guidelines to the Annex of the UNESCO 2001 Convention, UNESCO, pp. 15–17).

[6] Journal of Laws of 2002, no. 59, item 543, addendum.

[7] Kobyliński Z. 2002, Konwencja…

[8] More on the stipulations of the 2001 Convention: Z. Kobyliński 2002, op.cit, W. Kowalski 2014, Konwencja o ochronie podwodnego dziedzictwa kulturowego z 2001 r., ‘Cenne, bezcenne, utracone’, issue 3-4, pp. 66–68; W. Kowalski 2022, Wydobywanie zabytków z morza w świetle Konwencji UNESCO o ochronie podwodnego dziedzictwa kulturowego z 2001 roku, ‘Santander Art and Culture Law Review’ vol. 1, pp. 17–40.

[9] Journal of Laws of 2022, item 840, art. 3 section 4.

[10] Journal of Laws of 2022, item 840, art. 32, pt. 10; art. 33, pt. 4; art. 36, pt. 2; and Journal of Laws of 2021, item 81, art. 9 and 10.

[11] Journal of Laws of Pomeranian Voivodeship of 2005, no. 105, item 2112.

[12] https://wsw.nmm.pl.

[13] Pomian I., 2018, Inwentaryzacja morskich stanowisk archeologicznych – wczoraj i dziś, ‘Kurier Konserwatorski’, issue 15, pp. 69–82.

[14] Domżał R., 2015, W stronę morza. Polityka ochrony morskiego dziedzictwa kulturowego w krajach rejonu Morza Bałtyckiego i Północnego, ‘Muzealnictwo’, vol. 56, pp. 68–76.

[15] One of the reasons for this moderate interest in ratifying the 2001 Convention among the Baltic area states is the age criterion used to define underwater cultural heritage. The majority of heritage sites located in the exclusive economic zones of the Baltic area states date back to World War II

[16] Manders M., Oosting R., Brouwers W., 2009, MACHU Managing Cultural Heritage Underwater Report, no. 2, Amersfoort; Uścinowicz S., Miotk-Szpiganowicz G., Gałka A., Pawlyta J., Piotrowska N., Pomian I., Witak M., 2011(2013), The rise, development and destruction of the medieval port of Puck in the light of research into paleoclimate and sea level change, ’Archeologia Polona’, vol. 49, pp. 87–104.

[17] Journal of Laws of 2021, item 935.

[18] https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000220708.

[19] Journal of Laws of 2021, item 1302.

[20] The project is financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage as part of the Kultura Inspirująca programme.

[21] https://www.icua.hr/en.

[22] This lack of underwater archaeologists has been discussed in meetings of the underwater cultural heritage working group. The highest number of specialists (some 16 people) are employed by Norway, while the remaining countries employ between 1 and 4 underwater archaeologists.

[23] Conducting underwater research in Poland (as well as other Baltic area states) requires a professional diver certificate. Such individuals can work at depths of up to 20 (2nd degree) and 30 metres (1st degree). While research institutions are exempt from the Act on underwater work, the same does not apply to cultural institutions (Journal of Laws of 2003, no. 199, item 1936).

[24] Bryn P., Jasiński M.E., Søreide F., 2007, Ormen Lange pipelines and shipswrecks, Oslo.

[25] https://www.icua.hr/en/article/international-cultural-cooperation-on-the-project-to-protect-the-underwater-cultural-heritage-of-the-skerki-bank-site-in-tunisia/564.