Underwater remains of human activity are called underwater cultural heritage. Along with their underwater environment, they form an underwater cultural landscape. Often, the protection of cultural heritage and underwater nature go hand in hand, with each promoting the other.
The National Board of Antiquities maintains the Ancient Relics Register, is responsible for the protection of underwater ancient relics, processes the research permit applications for underwater ancient relics, gives statements on the effects of water engineering projects on underwater cultural heritage, and cooperates with amateur divers.
The Ancient Relics Register contains information about over 2,000 underwater discoveries, approximately 750 of which are protected ancient relics. In addition to wreck sites and shipwrecks, underwater structures such as port equipment and harbour defences, as well as fishing-related structures, miscellaneous finds and submerged dwellings and gravesites, are considered underwater cultural heritage.
The Antiquities Act protects underwater sites the same way it protects ancient sites on land. Underwater man-made structures, such as fairway obstructions or the remains of bridges or quays, for example, are protected as reminders of Finland's past settlements and history. Regardless of their age, all sites are protected and one must not touch them without permission from the National Board of Antiquities (NBA).
Old shipwrecks are protected by their age. The wrecks of ships and other vessels discovered in the sea or in inland waters that can be considered to have sunk over one hundred years ago, or parts thereof, are considered ancient sites. A find of this kind must be reported to the National Board of Antiquities without delay. If it is obvious that the owner has abandoned the wreck or a part of it, the wreck belongs to the state. In addition, the artefacts in or from a wreck of this kind belong to the state.
There are also objects of cultural heritage, discovered on beach and water areas, which are not considered objects as indicated in section 2 of the Antiquities Act and which cannot be protected under the Antiquities Act. The safeguarding of such objects of cultural heritage (e.g. remnants of timber rafting equipment and wrecks that have sunk less than 100 years ago) can also be justified due to their historical significance and the values of cultural heritage. These objects can be protected by planning regulations, for example.
Based on the legislation, the National Board of Antiquities is responsible for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. The Board cooperates with the environmental officials, the Finnish Navy, Metsähallitus and the Finnish Transport Agency, among others. Exchanging information and experiences with foreign cultural heritage officials is also important in terms of the protection activities.
In sea areas, wreck sites are protected by the Gulf of Finland Coast Guard and the West Finland Coast Guard. The National Board of Antiquities is in active contact with the coast guard districts, notifying them about research permits granted and the field work carried out by the National Board of Antiquities itself.
The most important means of protection include educating amateur divers and cooperating with them. The National Board of Antiquities cooperates with numerous divers when it comes to checking the locations of the objects, documenting them and exchanging information.
Based on the Antiquities Act, four significant protected wreck sites have been assigned a protected area. This is to ensure the long-term preservation of the sites, which are of varying ages and types, and the information they contain for future generations and study.
Underwater cultural heritage is also protected through international treaties, guidelines and declarations.
Scuba diving is a form of recreation that is growing in popularity. Many new enthusiasts take up the hobby each year in Finland. The National Board of Antiquities cooperates with numerous divers in examining, documenting and exchanging information regarding underwater ancient relics. The aim of such cooperation is to have the scuba divers respect the ancient sites and the information they contain when conducting recreational diving, and be willing to do their part in preserving the sites through their own activities.
In order for wreck sites to remain interesting for future generations, anchoring on wrecks, careless touching of wrecks and the taking of souvenirs should be avoided. In any case, without conservation objects raised from the water will not last long. Erroneous procedures destroy wrecks and violate the law; such acts may also constitute a desecration of a grave site. Investigating underwater ancient relics is always subject to a permit. The research permit is applied for in writing from the National Board of Antiquities.
Based on the Antiquities Act (295/1963), five protected wreck sites in Finland also have a protected area around them. These are St. Nikolai (item 1108 in the Ancient Relics Register) outside Kotka as well as Gråharun (item 2228 in the Ancient Relics Register), St. Mikael (item 1648 in the Ancient Relics Register) and Vrouw Maria (item 1658 in the Ancient Relics Register) in the Archipelago Sea as well as Huis te Warmelo (item 2381 in the Ancient Relics Register). The boundaries of the protected areas of these sites have been defined and confirmed in various years with the owners of the water areas and the authorities, in accordance with the procedures delineated in the Antiquities Act.
With the exception of sea rescue operations regarding an endangered vessel, Finnish Maritime Administration actions intended to improve maritime safety, or diving and research activity authorised and directed by the National Board of Antiquities, all diving activities and anchoring within the protected areas is forbidden. However, traversing the protected area by boat is allowed.
With a protected area, the aim is to preserve the wreck or other underwater site and the information it contains for archaeological research. This way, the structures of the wreck or the artefacts within it will not disappear or be destroyed undocumented, and the entirety of the site can be examined as intact as possible in the future. Protected areas are a long-term means of safeguarding different finds from different times and the information they contain as an archaeological whole. In this fashion, the chosen sites can demonstrate the history of navigation as thoroughly as possible.
The responsible parties of a public or largescale private water engineering project, as well as those of a water area related zoning project, are obligated by the Antiquities Act to find out well in advance whether the project will involve underwater ancient relics. Already at the planning stage it is recommended that the parties be in contact with the National Board of Antiquities, as it is the only official body that is responsible for protecting underwater cultural heritage. The National Board of Antiquities will decide whether there are grounds to conduct an investigation regarding underwater cultural heritage in connection with the planning of the project. If it is believed to be possible for there to be archaeological artefacts present, based on the history of the area, but no comprehensive data on underwater ancient relics yet exists, the National Board of Antiquities will propose that an underwater archaeological inventory be conducted during the planning phase of the project. Sometimes an underwater site requires a survey, or dredging activities need to be monitored.
If the project is going to result in the damaging or destruction of a known underwater ancient relic, the National Board of Antiquities will be consulted and a suitable procedure will be agreed upon. In accordance with the Antiquities Act, the ancient relic can be examined in order to save the information that the relic contains, even if the relic itself is destroyed. The expenses for such an examination are paid by the responsible party of the project.
The responsible parties of the projects can order underwater archaeological reports from the fieldwork service company of their choice. The National Board of Antiquities can provide advice on ordering the reports, if necessary. Archaeological fieldwork must follow the quality instructions of archaeological fieldwork carried out in Finland.
The National Board of Antiquities provides a free maritime archaeological examination in water areas administered by private individuals, such as dredging the shore in front of a summer cottage or constructing a pier, if ancient relics at risk of destruction are known to be in the area.