Marine historic environment

Northern Ireland’s inshore and offshore regions contain a rich archaeological record spanning the previous 9,000 years. It includes material ranging from prehistoric flint tools and log boats to historic harbour installations, First World War shipwrecks and coastal defences.

Types of heritage asset

The marine historic environment can be characterised as comprising the following principal types of heritage asset:

  • wrecks of ships, boats and aircraft
  • submerged prehistory, such as artefacts, structures and deposits that are presently submerged as a consequence of sea-level rise but which originated from human activities on land
  • coastal and intertidal archaeology, which covers a very wide range of artefacts, structures and deposits that originated from inhabitation or use of the coast

Who protects the marine historic environment?

New UK marine legislation advocates "the need to protect the environment" inclusive of "any site of historic or archaeological interest". Marine and Fisheries Division works with the Historic Environment Division (Department for Communities), the Northern Ireland body for the management of the historic environment, and other key partners, to ensure significant marine archaeological sites are managed and protected. By helping to protect and manage sustainably our most important marine archaeological sites, the Department is ensuring that these sites can be enjoyed by future generations and further delivering on Government’s High Level Marine Objectives (2008).

Our role

We protect Northern Ireland's marine heritage, working from shore to the limits of our national waters by:

  • helping to ensure that key marine heritage sites are managed and protected through licensing, formal designation, strategic investigation and the delivery of appropriate policy and guidance
  • co-ordinating marine historic environment advice to support marine planning, marine licensing and the designation of marine conservation zones
  • helping to enhance the record of the marine historic environment and dissemination of this information to support marine planning, marine licensing, the designation of marine conservation zones, and to strengthen the Maritime Heritage Record
  • helping to develop a wider understanding and enjoyment of marine heritage

Recent research

We support innovative research and the dissemination of results. We have sponsored and supported major work in the coastal zone from inception to publication. Recent reports completed include:

Legislation and policy for marine heritage sites

Key statutory controls on archaeological sites and material in marine and intertidal areas include:

At international level, standards for archaeological protection, conservation and recording, both on land and underwater, are set out in the European Convention on the Protection of Archaeological Heritage 1992 (also known as the Valletta Convention).

The UK ratified the Valletta Convention in 2000. By signing the Convention a State undertakes to provide a legal system to protect its archaeological heritage, including maintenance of an up-to-date inventory of cultural heritage assets.

Wrecks below the high water mark can be protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. The protection of archaeological sites and monuments through Scheduling is provided under the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995; monuments situated in, on or under the seabed up to 12 nautical miles can also be scheduled under this Order.

Other legislation not specifically designed to protect archaeology can be used to good effect, e.g., The Merchant Shipping Act 1995 is used throughout the UK to report the discovery of archaeological objects on the seabed and to arrange for their conservation and acquisition by cultural institutions.

Sites are also protected through the consultation and decision-making processes of various central and local authorities. For example, specialist and impartial advice is provided for development proposals in relation to Northern Ireland’s marine historic environment as part of a consultation process provided by The Planning (NI) Order 2011 and The Marine Act (NI) 2013. In addition European Union (EU) ‘EIA’ Directive (2014/52/EU) sets out the requirement for EIA to identify, describe and assess in an appropriate manner, the direct and indirect effects of a project on environmental factors including material assets and the historic environment.

Relevant policies for the protection and conservation of archaeological remains and elements of the historic landscape in marine and intertidal areas include: PPS 6 Planning, Archaeology and the Built Heritage and Addendum; Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS); Marine Policy Statement (MPS) and the emerging Marine Plan for Northern Ireland. The Regional Development Strategy (RDS) also supports the conservation and protection of cultural heritage, whilst recognising heritage as key tourism and recreational assets. 

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