Assessing the significance of 20th century underwater cultural heritage
Significance assessment is frequently used to evaluate the importance of archaeological sites both on land and, more recently, underwater. The assessment of significance often determines suitability for legislative protection. Australia has a variable record with regard to the legislative protection of twentieth century underwater cultural heritage, with the current situation being particularly inconsistent. Recent proposed and actual changes to international conventions as well as to Australian national and state legislation and administrative arrangements have created at least five different legislative regimes. This paper will focus on the significant differences that exist in the legislative protection afforded twentieth century underwater cultural heritage in Australia. These arise partly as a result of the case-by-case approach to significance assessment that still exists in South Australia under the SA Historic Shipwrecks Act 1982 compared to the various systems of blanket coverage such as those with a fixed date (of 1900 in Western Australia under the Maritime Archaeology Act) or a rolling date (of 75 years under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976). It will also address some of the problems that are becoming apparent with the current exclusive focus by both Commonwealth and State agencies on shipwrecks rather than the totality of underwater cultural heritage. Problems that can only increase with the ratification by Australia of the draft UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage expected to occur during 2002.