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


New UK marine legislation includes "the need to protect the environment" inclusive of "any site of historic or archaeological interest".

Historic Environment Division (HED) works with DAERA Marine and Fisheries Division and other key partners, to ensure significant marine archaeological sites are managed and protected through planning, licensing, designation, strategic investigation and the implementation of appropriate policy and guidance. By helping to protect and manage sustainably our most important marine archaeological sites, HED is ensuring that these sites can be enjoyed by future generations and delivering on Government’s High Level Marine Objectives (2008).

Both the UK Marine Policy Statement (2011) and the Marine Plan for Northern Ireland (once adopted) further recognise the need to protect and manage marine cultural heritage in order to realise wider social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits. 

In order to meet these commitments HED work closely with DAERA Marine and Fisheries Division in the protection and management of Northern Ireland’s marine heritage assets. HED produced a position statement in 2019 that sets out a framework by which it will work with DAERA and other key partners towards better marine heritage management in Northern Ireland.

Our role

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

  • enhancing the record of the marine historic environment and disseminating this information to support marine planning, heritage asset management and improved public awareness and enjoyment
  • ensuring that marine heritage sites have appropriate protection and management; and
  • providing co-ordinated marine historic environment advice to support marine planning and policy

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
  • relevant Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) legislation sets out the requirement 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:

A wider context is provided by the Rules annexed to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. These Rules have been adopted by HM Government as being ‘best practice’ for marine archaeology and, as such, frame the respective UK heritage agencies approach to the subject.



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