Finding the way up in Dominican Republic’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Management

My name is Diana Pena Bastalla, archaeologist from the Dominican Republic. I am currently participating in the UNESCO Foundation Course in St. Eustatius.  I am very excited to be part of this group of wonderful individuals with a strong passion to protect our underwater cultural heritage. 

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I come from the heart of the Caribbean, ‘La Hispaniola’, which is now divided in two countries: the Dominican Republic and Haiti.  My island is full of tremendous energy, diverse population, and vibrant cultures. For as long I can remember, I have always wanted to be an archaeologist. At some point during my adolescence, I remember talking to my parents about it. They hesitated as soon as I mentioned the topic because archaeology was not considered as a career in Dominican Republic. Today after many years of studies I hold the Master’s Degree in Archaeological Studies from Glasgow University in Scotland and I have returned to my country to work and contribute to my Dominican society.

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Around the coasts of the Dominican Republic, there is a vast amount of shipwrecks that perished since the beginning of the contact with the Europeans in the 15thcentury in their endless endeavours to find gold and other valuable resources from the new world – ‘America’. These shipwrecks are the silent witnesses of tragedies and stories of unfulfilled lives that were cut short by storms, wars, privateers and pirate attacks.  If the underwater cultural heritage could speak thousands of stories would be told.

The Dominican Republic government has an Underwater Archaeology Department (Oficina de Patrimonio Subacuático). Sadly it is understaffed:  the lack of underwater archaeologists, funding, and technology threatens the existence of our underwater cultural heritage. As a solution to canalize funding, the Dominican government granted contracts to ‘Treasure Hunters’ companies from North America.

For decades these companies have used uncontrolled exploitation, indiscriminate and unsuitable research methods such as excavating with explosives, intense use of punches, strong suckers, prop-wash and trawling. As marine salvors they are entitled to 50% of the material culture (objects) found during the excavations and used for commercial purposes abroad. Recently the majority of these contracts were cancelled but some companies still with the pretext of salvaging our underwater cultural heritage keep conducting excavations in our waters and exploiting our underwater cultural resources. Nevertheless, there is still hope that this situation will get better. It is – in this light – important for our country to ratify the UNESCO 2001 CONVENTION on protection of the underwater cultural heritage.

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During this course we have learned about Data Management, Underwater Cultural Heritage, Underwater Archaeological Techniques, Project designs, Legal protection of Underwater Cultural heritage, and Geographical Information Systems.  At the moment, we have been divided into groups and each group has been assigned a project in which we have to put into context everything we have learned throughout the first weeks of training.  My team is in charge of surveying the ruins of the ‘Old Pier’ located in Orange Bay, Lower Town, St. Eustatius.  In its original form, Oude Pier or Old Pier was used as a landing for commercial activities and for passengers of larger ships to disembark.

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Participating in the UNESCO Foundation Course has given me the opportunity to learn more about the importance of underwater cultural Heritage. As delegates of our countries the aim is to create a strong network that would enable us to manage and protect the underwater cultural heritage of our Caribbean waters.

The Foundation Course has inspired me to further my studies in underwater archaeology and to re-create the initiative in my country of the importance of ratifying the UNESCO CONVENTION to preserve and protect our underwater cultural heritage.

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Diana Pena Bastalla

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