Presentation of the Convention for the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage of Europe (revised) (Valletta, 1992)
Archaeological heritage – a changing definition
Archaeological heritage includes structures, buildings, groups of buildings, developed sites, movable remains and monuments of other types, together with their surroundings, whether they are located underground or underwater. Since the London Convention, the definition has changed. For example, items found during excavations are no longer regarded as the only things of importance. Every trace or relic liable to shed light on an aspect of humankind’s past and further our knowledge of history and human beings’ relations with their natural habitat now takes on its full heritage dimension.
A source of Europe’s collective memory
The revised Convention highlights the scientific importance of archaeological heritage. Previously, archaeological sites and monuments were excavated in order to remove objects and place them museums and art galleries. Many people used to regard this heritage as a source of commercial profit, and many still do today. States must try to prevent this kind of archaeology. Thanks to ever more advanced scientific techniques, studies of archaeological heritage provide precious nuggets of information on the development of humankind in Europe. Ultimately, this is one of the sources of Europe’s collective memory and a tool for historical and scientific study, which needs to be protected.
Archaeology and spatial planning
The Valletta Convention established direct interaction between archaeology and spatial planning, updating the London Convention of 1969 : twenty years later, there had been an increase in population, living standards and the number and complexity of development projects, which included major public works (motorways, underground railways and high-speed trains, replanning of old town centres, car parks, etc.) and activities in the countryside (reafforestation, land consolidation, etc.). These activities generated new threats to the discovery and protection of archaeological heritage.
Identification of archaeological heritage and legal protection measures
It is particularly important and useful to find out about the archaeological heritage by means of a detailed inventory when devising spatial planning projects. Legal measures recommended by the Convention include systems to regulate the conduct of excavations on public and private land.
Applying integrated conservation principles to the archaeological heritage is intended to ensure that states encourage archaeologists and town and spatial planners to cooperate throughout the entire planning process. New constructions should not affect the landscape or the situation of a site by, for example, altering a watercourse, wind patterns or sunlight distribution.
Funding, dissemination of information and mutual technical assistance
The revised Convention requires each state party to support archaeological research financially and promote rescue archaeology, using public or private funding as the case may be. Costs include both the archaeological work itself and the work after the excavations, including research archiving and the preparation of catalogues and reports. Scientific information collected on site and subsequent reports by specialists must be broadly disseminated and mutual technical and scientific assistance must be developed through exchanges of people in the occupations linked to archaeological heritage conservation.
Public awareness-raising about archaeological heritage
The more aware the public are of the value of the heritage, the less inclined they are to damage or destroy it. This is why the Valletta Convention reiterates that steps must be taken to facilitate access to sites and artefacts. Under some circumstances public access has to be denied in order to protect heritage − for example certain caves containing prehistoric rock art have been closed because public access raises the humidity level and causes bacterial growth leading to decay of the paintings. In such cases sites will be presented in other forms, such as full-scale replicas.
Preventing the illegal circulation of artefacts
The illegal circulation of artefacts can be restricted through co-operation between states, informing each other when a suspect object appears on the market. The Convention points out that the best way of guarding against trading in items from illegal excavations is to educate the public, showing that removing an item from its context destroys the scientific value of the object itself as well as damaging site from which it came.
Council of Europe monitoring
The Convention established a Council of Europe committee of experts responsible for reporting regularly on archaeological heritage protection policies in the states party.
The Valletta Convention and other international texts
The Valletta Convention is a Europe-wide international treaty which establishes the basic common principles to be applied in national archaeological heritage policies. It supplements the general provisions of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (1972) and updates the Recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations (UNESCO, 1956) and the Recommendation concerning the Protection, at National Level, of the Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO, 1972). In terms of preventive measures, it also complements the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property (UNESCO, 1970). The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (UNESCO, 2001) is more restrictive in scope and more specific than the Valletta Convention. It relates mainly to underwater maritime heritage, covering items that are at least 100 years old. In this way the two conventions complement one another.