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Saturday, 3 November, 2001, 17:06 GMT
Unesco bans sea plunder
A sphinx discovered submerged in the ancient port of Alexandria, Egypt
Unesco has warned against a new "gold rush"
Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation, has adopted a convention banning the plunder of ancient shipwrecks and underwater cities by treasure hunters.

The Unesco Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, four years in the making, aims to prevent what the organisation calls "a new gold rush", with companies or individuals pillaging for commercial exploitation.

It also gives priority for the excavation of sites that have been underwater for at least 100 years.

Unesco argues that such a ban is crucial because advanced technology means that access is now easier for sites previously considered unreachable because of their immense depth.

Under the convention, member states will have the power to seize any illegally obtained treasure that enters their territory.

Rich hauls

A gold pendant found on a shipwrecked Spanish galleon off the coast of Florida
There are an estimated 3 million shipwrecks in the world's oceans
There are an estimated three million shipwrecks across the world's oceans, in addition to other ancient archaeological sites, many of which are a rich source of plunder for would-be salvagers.

A Spanish galleon discovered off the coast of Florida in 1985 for example, had a cargo of silver and gold worth an estimated $400m.

However the ban has to be ratified by a minimum of 20 countries before it can come into force, and the convention is already coming under attack from commercial salvage operators.

See also:

24 Aug 01 | Scotland
Monument status for German wrecks
04 Jul 01 | South Asia
India uncovers ancient Buddhist marvel
16 Jun 01 | Media reports
Divers locate 'phantom shipwreck'
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