An Amnesty Assessed. Human Impact on Shipwreck Sites: the Australian Case.



In 1993 a nationwide amnesty was declared in Australia, calling for members of the public who were in possession of historic shipwreck relics to declare them to their respective State cultural heritage management agencies. The amnesty was instituted in response to an amendment in the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, which introduced ‘blanket protection’ for all shipwrecks and associated relics in Commonwealth waters which were at least 75 years old. This paper reports on a recent assessment of the process, consequences and implications of the amnesty, and discusses the significance of the results.

© 2008 The Author

By the mid 1980s, looting of Australia's shipwreck sites, particularly in the early years of scuba diving in the 1950s and ’60s, was seen as a significant problem through which information on Australia's maritime heritage had been lost into private hands. While archaeologists knew that many shipwreck sites had been and were still being looted, it was impossible to ascertain what had been removed and how much information had been lost as a consequence.

In 1985, at the request of several States, the Historic Shipwrecks Act was amended to allow the possibility of declaring all wrecks over 75 years old as historic under a blanket declaration. Before this legislation came into force, but in response to it, the idea of a national amnesty was discussed between the State and Commonwealth agencies. After some eight years of lobbying and preparation work this idea was brought to the point of being ready for declaration. This could only occur if all States and Territories agreed (NSW Heritage Office file: S90/01543/001, f.165). The amnesty initially ran for six months, with a subsequent five-month extension. Thousands of relics were declared and about 30 ‘new’ shipwreck sites were reported. Now, after 14 years, this paper reports on the background to the amnesty, and on a recent assessment of the process and its consequences, and discusses the research potential of the collections.

Features of an amnesty

For archaeology, amnesties are a way of filling gaps in the material record by documenting the existence of looted materials and other relevant information, such as the recording of oral histories. An amnesty, by its very definition, provides members of the public with the assurance that the main objective is to record ‘lost’ information and that they need not fear being prosecuted for declaring materials protected by law. Factors which will determine how an amnesty works may include the following: the purpose of the amnesty; the level of publicity; its duration; the availability of resources to deal with the public's response; the structures and procedures in place to deal with notifications; the attitudes of State authorities towards the amnesty; the attitudes of the public towards the amnesty; relations between State agencies and members of the public concerning the amnesty; whether or not the public has been made aware that an amnesty is about to occur before it is announced; and public perception of the authorities’ motives for the amnesty.

A very important requirement for any archaeological amnesty is having sufficient resources available to manage the short- and long-term consequences. It is also important to make clear to the public the objectives and the process of the amnesty, such as the importance of recording and enhancing information for research, whether relics will or will not be confiscated by authorities, and the penalties for holding relics illegally after the end of the amnesty.

Events leading up to the 1993 amnesty

Prior to the amendment of the Commonwealth Act, which introduced the blanket declaration, a wreck in Commonwealth waters was protected only after it had been nominated to the Minister and its significance assessed against a list of criteria, and it was decided that it was important to Australia's history. The process was tedious, time-consuming and, given the number of shipwrecks off the Australian coastline, extremely impractical. New South Wales authorities had argued against this ad hoc protection of shipwrecks which, according to them, discouraged a thematic approach to shipwreck research and instead encouraged a ‘loot before it is protected’ syndrome. The ‘blanket protection’, on the other hand, implied that all shipwrecks are historic regardless of what is known about them.

During the late 1980s, there were significant moves by New South Wales State authorities to enact the Section 4 provisions of the Act. Section 4A provides automatic protection for all shipwrecks and relics which are at least 75 years old—whether or not located—in Australian waters (Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976). This move, however, concerned some who were worried about placing divers in an unfair position (NSW Heritage Office file: S90/04292/001, ff. 222–3). Around the same time, authorities in New South Wales also recommended that blanket ‘declaration’ be amended to blanket ‘protection’. The reason was that the former emphasised the negative aspect of declaring shipwrecks simply to prevent souvenir-hunting, whereas the latter encouraged a more thematic approach to shipwreck research and protection (NSW Heritage Office file: S90/01543/002, ff. 101–03, 105–06; S90/01543/001, ff. 123–4, 126).

Once the blanket protection came into force, it immediately increased the number of historic shipwrecks significantly and, consequently, the number of historic shipwreck relics. An amnesty, therefore, would allow people with relics from any Commonwealth Historic Shipwreck site to declare them without fear of prosecution. This was because anyone holding artefacts from protected wrecks would now have in their custody material that was protected by law. It would be difficult, and indeed undesirable, to prosecute anyone based on Section 4A without giving him or her a chance to declare their relics. It needs to be noted, however, that the Navigation Act 1912 also provided a degree of protection for shipwreck artefacts but only required people to notify the Receiver of Wreck that they had taken material from a shipwreck. This Act allows claimants up to a year to claim a wreck and its cargo (subject to proof) after which all unclaimed wrecks and cargo become the property of the Commonwealth. In addition, the issue of ownership can sometimes be problematic.

In 1991 it was agreed among the States and the Northern Territory that the Commonwealth should proceed with an amnesty under Sections 9 and 17 of the Historic Shipwrecks Act, provided it was given appropriate publicity (WA Museum File: MA-4/93, Vol. 1, 01/02/1993). Section 9 concerns notice of the ‘location’ of historic shipwrecks and relics to be notified to the Minister within 30 days. Section 17 concerns the ‘discovery’ of shipwrecks and relics to be notified to the Minister as soon as practicable. With the exception of Norfolk Island, which was under a slightly different administrative structure, the amnesty eventually resulted from a unanimous consensus by the shipwreck delegates across Australia (NSW Heritage Office file: S90/01543/002, ff. 101–03, 105–06). The amendment provided an effective change for those delegated with the authority to manage Australia's shipwrecks. In reality, however, having protective legislation was one thing, implementing it was another.

The 1993 Historic Shipwrecks amnesty

In the context of this amnesty, once the material was declared and the State had recorded it, the item was returned or left in the custody of the notifier, provided it was kept securely, not damaged or modified, its condition regularly monitored, and it was not sold, transferred or disposed of without a permit. This is because most people holding protected objects were not the owners but the custodians, although it was possible that some holders had obtained relics from wrecks legally, for example by purchase at auction and handed down within families. Even where an individual is the legal possessor of an object, however, once the object becomes historic under the Act (as a result of the wreck becoming 75 years old), that individual has to comply with obligations under the Act with regard to the protected relic. There was never any plan to confiscate relics under the amnesty. The amnesty also included reporting of wreck-sites not yet known to authorities. Unfortunately for authorities handling the response to an amnesty, particularly one that was held for the first time, it was near impossible to predict the level of response from the public.


The amnesty was declared in order to inventory the artefacts that had been removed from historic shipwreck sites and remained in private hands, and to ensure that people were not unfairly placed in breach of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. In other words, the amnesty applied to anyone who discovered the location of a shipwreck in Australian waters or gained control of a relic prior to April 1993 and had yet to report their discovery.


Shipping played a vital role in the history and settlement of Australia. Coastal and riverine water transport was an integral part of aboriginal life and the development of Australia as part of the world economy was dependent on seaborne transport. Unfortunately, not all voyages ended successfully and there are an estimated 5000 historic shipwrecks in Australian waters. The remains of those wrecks and the cargoes and personal effects they carried provide irreplaceable historical evidence about many aspects of Australian history. The archaeological evidence of shipwrecks in many cases provides information that is unavailable in the documentary records, such as trade goods brought to Australia for which there are no ships’ manifests, and evidence of shipbuilding skills which were only passed on orally.

Sport-diving was also a growing industry at the time and thousands of people were diving on wrecks like the SS Yongala in Queensland. The Historic Shipwrecks Act, therefore, was aimed at protecting wrecks for both their heritage and recreational value. In order to gain a better understanding of that heritage, the Commonwealth Government's plan was to document all known wrecks and to record relics held in private hands. The amnesty was introduced because the protection of shipwrecks was being greatly expanded on 1 April 1993, rising from a selective group of about 156 historic wrecks to all which have been shipwrecks for at least 75 years (nearly 5000). Furthermore, as time goes by, more shipwrecks will meet the 75-year cut-off date.

The amnesty was initially held from 1 May to 30 October 1993. Following hundreds of enquiries from divers and fishermen, it was extended for another five months to 31 March 1994, although some opposed this. It appeared that many fishermen were not aware of the amnesty and the five-month extension was to allow them time to come forward and declare their materials and information. The amnesty was thus in operation for a total of 11 months.

Strategy and implementation

On 1 April 1993 the Minister declared that ‘all shipwrecks aged 75 or more years old in Australian waters are now protected from disturbance, damage and plunder under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, and the blanket declaration of these shipwrecks is a major step forward in protecting Australia's underwater heritage’ (Media Release, 1 April 1993). A month later, the Minister announced the amnesty to encourage people with information on unrecorded wrecks or wreck relics to come forward and give details without fear of prosecution (Media Release, 30 April 1993). Newspaper and television coverage were some of the means by which the amnesty was made known to the Australian public. Posters, pamphlets, booklets, leaflets, scuba tank tags and letters to dive-schools and small regional museums were others. Every effort was made to publicise the amnesty as widely as possible to the recreational diving community and others with the aim of encouraging anyone in possession of protected shipwreck relics to come forward and declare them for recording.

A standard declaration form had been designed for notifiers to fill out and send to their respective State agencies. The basic procedure involved an official report by the notifier, and a subsequent official response from the State agency acknowledging the notification. The item was then registered, in some cases photographed as well, and then returned to the notifier accompanied by a certificate. The Western Australian Maritime Museum's Maritime Archaeology Department also displayed some of the glassware from the Sepia (1898) declared during the amnesty to publicise the process further while it was happening.


The amnesty resulted in approximately 20,000 artefacts being declared by divers, private collectors, coin-dealers, fishermen, schools, and small regional museums which had accepted donated materials from divers over the years. The collections include glassware, ships’ bells, watches, porthole scuttles, bolts, clay pipes, coins, personal possessions, various ships’ fittings, armaments, navigational instruments, ballast, ceramic objects, rigging-related artefacts, items related to hull structures, and various metal and wooden objects (Figs 1–7). These were ‘new’ artefacts not previously recorded by State agencies. It should be noted that not everyone who declared materials was the original diver or collector of the material. Some had inherited them, some declared them on behalf of institutions which had come in possession of shipwreck materials, such as schools to which ships’ bells had been donated (Southgate, 1993; Griffiths, 1994). Others had either purchased them out of interest, or as a favour to assist someone financially, or had received them as gifts from friends.

Figure 1.

Cutlass from Batavia (1629), thought to have been used in the massacre of survivors on Beacon Island. Donated anonymously during the amnesty, and currently on display at the Western Australian Museum, Fremantle. (Western Australian Museum)

Figure 2.

Amnesty artefacts from the Dunbar (1857), currently on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney. (J. Rodrigues)

Figure 3.

Miniature figurines from the Fiji (1891), Heritage Victoria. (J. Rodrigues)

Figure 4.

Porcelain container from the George Roper (1883), privately held. Lack of treatment has caused surface deterioration. (J. Rodrigues)

Figure 5.

Toast-holder from the Loch Ard (1878), Heritage Victoria. (J. Rodrigues)

Figure 6.

Metal bolts from the South Milton (1886), Heritage Victoria. (J. Rodrigues)

Figure 7.

Ceramic jar from the City of Edinburgh (1840), Heritage Victoria. (J. Rodrigues)

After the amnesty was announced, around 30 ‘new’ shipwrecks were reported in a diverse range of locations. Almost half of these were in Victoria with the rest in Tasmania and Queensland (Cribb, 1994). The reporting of these wrecks provided insights into the accessibility of the wrecks involved in the amnesty. In addition, the quantity and quality of artefacts were also noted, and one of the challenges faced involved identifying contemporary and modern forgeries.

Now, after 14 years, there has been little organization of and research on the amnesty collections in most of the states. Victoria has been the most active; Western Australia has carried out various unpublished analyses on its amnesty data and some objects have been exhibited temporarily or permanently (Fig. 1); in New South Wales, one article was published on a sample of belt buckles from the Dunbar, and a display of some amnesty artefacts from the same wreck can be seen at the Australian National Maritime Museum (Fig. 2); and in Queensland, an honours thesis was written about material from the Mecca wreck in the Torres Strait. No artefacts were declared in the Northern Territory. It is worth noting that the amnesty artefacts are not the only relics to be surrendered or transferred to the State government agencies or museums. Materials seized by police after the amnesty are also given to some of these institutions for processing, conservation and storage.

Immediate and long-term consequences

An immediate response to the amnesty was that authorities were inundated by the public with reports of private collections. Many of these were donated to the State agencies or museums but a large number still remained in private custody. The absence of adequate financial support from the Commonwealth limited the ability of State agencies to deal with responses from the public. For those maritime units with a very small number of staff this proved extremely challenging. Primarily, the problem was the absence of a centralised database to ensure a standard and uniform registration process across the country. The result, therefore, was a varied level of recording and cataloguing between the States (Philippou, 2004: 31).

One of the long-term consequences is the on-going cost of maintaining the amnesty databases, records, and certificates for artefacts that were handed back to the custodians, as well as custodians wanting to transfer custody of or sell relics. Long-term staff time and resources are needed for this as well as for monitoring the condition of the materials and for determining and undertaking appropriate conservation treatment. In addition, there is the possibility of custodians not caring for the artefacts properly, and also the problem of what happens to a collection if a custodian dies, moves, or gives away their relics without informing the authorities. Maintaining the records and dealing with the long-term consequences has proven to be near-impossible for most units. With the exception of Victoria, the agencies have not stayed in contact with the custodians who declared material. A recent survey sent to all notifiers across the country has shown that a significant number have since died or moved with no forwarding contact details provided. The fate of their collections remains unknown.

In addition, the current attitudes of some authorities towards the amnesty collections still vary. Most believe the collections are still archaeologically significant and valuable in many respects and, therefore, need to be recorded and preserved despite associated problems such as their lack of context. A few, however, are of the view that site contamination by non-related materials including waste, both contemporary and modern, decreases the significance and archaeological value of the objects already removed from context. Another problem is the accuracy of provenance in the case of some collections. Many divers raised artefacts in the 1950s and 60s from different wrecks, sometimes on the same day, and some cannot always recall with certainty the specific wreck associated with some relics. In some cases, it has been possible to identify the wreck-site from which the artefacts came based on comparisons with similar, if not identical, items from the same site. In other cases, however, it has not been possible to clarify matters which, some feel, renders many of the collections meaningless.

Evaluation of methods and results

One of the most significant problems is the inconsistency in the registration process. Some State agencies resorted to registering some items in bulk due to time constraints, or because some notifiers had thousands of objects in their collection and could not practically fill out a declaration form for each. These forms were also a bone of contention with some notifiers as they were designed for declaring objects from a single wreck rather than multiple wrecks. Furthermore, not all items were numbered and tagged. Some collectors also filled out forms and submitted them to the State agencies, never needing to physically present objects for visual inspection unless they were rare and significant. With paper submissions, registrations of objects were done based on the declaration forms. The instructions to notifiers only stated that it was highly desirable that a notifier made available their objects for inspection by authorised officers so that they could be properly recorded and registered with a certified photograph. Unless this was done, it cannot be proven that a particular article is the article for which a notification had been made to the Minister (Dept of the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories Information Leaflet: 2).

While it would certainly have been the ideal approach, there was no absolute requirement under the amnesty for collections to be sent to a central registry in each State or Territory. Furthermore, some divers had visited shipwrecks in interstate waters and declared their materials to their respective State agency. It was not feasible for collectors to travel interstate to declare their relics. For those where the process was essentially a ‘paper exercise’, it is assumed that the information on the form is accurate, as State agencies could not practically check every submission. The accuracy or honesty of the paper declarations can, therefore, be questioned.

These inconsistencies in the method of registration are a significant problem, for it gives some members of the public the opportunity to claim that anything they raise from wreck-sites after the amnesty were raised before then and declared during the amnesty. Some State authorities have no way of knowing whether such claims are true and, more importantly, of proving otherwise. At the time, however, Western Australia, with the advantage of a comparatively larger number of staff members, was able to travel within the State to physically examined and photograph approximately 90% of declared material by informing notifiers in advance of planned regional visits. Victoria has since followed up on declarations made in its State and regained contact with its notifiers.

Given that it was the enactment of provisions in the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks legislation that led to the amnesty being declared by the Commonwealth Government, it should have been the responsibility of the Commonwealth Government to provide sufficient resources to State agencies to deal with the responses from the public. Instead, the Commonwealth provided limited funding and essentially left it to the devices of the State agencies to deal with the situation, and this proved too overwhelming for some of the smaller maritime units. Even this limited funding was transferred from other areas, which suffered a consequent reduction in their funding. Moreover, the announcement of the amnesty seems not to have reached all relevant sections of the community. Many fishermen appeared to be unaware of the amnesty and it is understood that this was the main reason for the five-month extension.

In New South Wales it also became apparent that many divers, and others with artefacts, were only just beginning to trust the amnesty—particularly after the extremely large Dunbar collection was registered and not confiscated, as some had thought would happen. A slow start to the amnesty was the result of natural suspicion among divers of the Government's ultimate intentions. The amnesty and the consequent rise in public consciousness of the cultural heritage and scientific value of relics from shipwrecks also led to many rare items being donated to museums for display (Cribb, 1994). It was also noted by the end of the amnesty that many divers had gone well beyond the requirements of the amnesty, supplying vast amounts of information resulting from careful historical research, as well as access to the relics themselves (Cribb, 1994).

Unfortunately, there were also some strange and negative outcomes that surprised the authorities. In South Australia, a collector began frequently to declare single coins, from a Dutch wreck in Western Australia, to South Australian authorities in order to have them registered under the amnesty. Suspicion prompted State authorities to investigate and it was discovered that the collector had made use of the amnesty to buy protected relics from interstate and then declare them during the amnesty, thereby ‘legalising’ his collection. It was also suspected that some divers might have looted wreck-sites during the amnesty since it provided them with the opportunity to then declare their loot before the amnesty ended, thereby legalising it, and avoiding prosecution. It has never been possible to prove this, but one wonders whether the extended length of the amnesty may have given rise to some of these outcomes.

Overall, the volume of artefacts declared revealed the level of early looting and the effect of this activity on Australia's shipwreck sites. This included both planned and opportunistic looting whereby divers were taken to wreck sites by friends and seized the opportunity to collect relics even though they had not intended to. In some cases, objects were recovered while divers were spear-fishing or diving for abalone and discovered wreck-sites in the process (Byron, nd: 60; Green, 1973: 272; Manly, 1994: 75; Western Fisheries, 1994: 14). Some divers even went to extraordinary lengths, including using dynamite, to recover certain types of materials from specific wreck-sites (Green, 1973: 273).

Another outcome of the amnesty was that it was possible to assess the awareness and appreciation of the public towards the value and richness of the underwater cultural heritage resource, and their awareness of legislation protecting historic shipwrecks. Authorities also discovered that some notifiers were not aware of whether their relics were from a State or Commonwealth shipwreck. The amnesty was only relevant to historic shipwrecks in Commonwealth waters but some individuals declared materials from wrecks in State waters, which were under the jurisdiction of the relevant State Government. Some collectors also declared artefacts recovered from wrecks after these became protected under the previous ‘nomination’ system. However, a ‘no questions asked’ approach was taken by authorities in order that divers should not be reluctant to come forward, so all declared items were recorded.

Research potential of the amnesty collections

Research undertaken to date on samples from the amnesty collections has served to highlight the value of this resource. In 1999 Howell-Meurs carried out an assessment of the material types and significance of Victoria's amnesty collection. The widespread geographical distribution of collections across the State was a prohibitive factor in examining these materials in the field (Howell-Meurs, 1999: 5). Nevertheless, although essentially a statistical analysis, the study provides an impression of the nature of historic shipwreck materials contained in Victoria's amnesty collection. In studying part of this collection, Ellis's (2001) research into remains of miniature figurines (Fig. 3) from the Loch Ard (1878) and Fiji (1891) showed that they were used to showcase new fashions. In addition, Fielding (2003) used what is normally seen as mundane window-glass panes from the Loch Ard (1878) to identify important links between local communities and shipwreck events. Fielding's social history linking the shipwreck event and its associated artefacts also revealed the economic benefits of a shipwreck to remote coastal communities in 19th-century Victoria.

Following extensive work on the Victorian collection, Philippou (2004: 31) reported that Victoria's significance-assessment project has seen a greater understanding of its amnesty collection, assisted in identifying gaps or inconsistencies in the collection, provided an increased understanding of the significance of certain artefacts, and, very importantly, renewed the unit's contact with custodians. Furthermore, many artefacts have been found to possess high aesthetic qualities and inherent story-telling value, and the project also highlighted the usefulness of some objects for public interpretation and exhibition (Philippou, 2004: 31). The amnesty collection has also been recognised as having great potential to contribute to information about 19th- and 20th-century culture in Australia (Philippou, 2004: 25).

In Queensland, McPhee (2004) used applied data in the form of Chinese ‘cash’ coins from the SS Mecca to conduct archaeological research directed towards Chinese immigrant ships and the material culture on board. This study resulted in an overall understanding of issues such as Chinese emigration to Australia in the 19th century, the use of Chinese labour, the seaman's strike, the introduction of steamships, the continuation of Chinese gaming practices in Australia, and the anti-Chinese movement. In New South Wales Knott (2001) carried out a study on a sample of the belt buckles from the Dunbar wreck, which threw light on fashions carried to the Australian colonies by mid-19th-century settlers. In the case of the Dutch wreck Zuytdorp in Western Australia, it was the discovery of the bell fragment that proved the most significant, as it helped to prove that the vessel lay against a drying reef, thereby allowing survivors to get ashore (McCarthy, 2006: 2). This was considered especially important for, of all the bullion-carrying East India ships lost on the coast, only the Zuytdorp was lost without a trace, or satisfactory explanation, rendering the material remains on land and at sea the only known record of the event. The Zuytdorp was doubly important because preliminary indications were that the survivors had interacted with local Aborigines, making it one of the first known ‘contact’ events in Australia.

These studies, while few compared to the volume of the collections, nevertheless highlight the archaeological value of this resource, and its potential for many areas of research, even where there is a perceived lack of historical significance due to the absence of context and possible site contamination.


From a global perspective, Australia's reasons for and experience from the amnesty provide a useful tool for other countries considering an amnesty. While there is no doubt that there are useful benefits, the evidence is that they can prove costly in many ways. There are several reasons for the successes and failures of the Australian amnesty, but it has provided archaeologists with the kinds of information they had sought. Materials and other useful information that surfaced have enabled many sites to be more thoroughly investigated and relevant information documented. They have also proved to be a good source of information in aiding interpretation about the communities that were affected by the loss of ship's cargo as well as the economic benefits that shipwrecks had for some remote 19th-century coastal communities. Furthermore, archaeologists generally will not associate themselves with looted materials in other circumstances such as in the illicit trade of archaeological materials or even those recovered legally through commercial salvage operations. The amnesty collections, therefore, although essentially looted relics, enable archaeologists to understand better what has been removed from Australia's shipwreck sites and the degree of this human impact on the archaeological record.

Some aspects of the process, however, could have been done differently. While there was a Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks officer overseeing the procedure, this responsibility should have included the registrations process occurring within the States. A more effective approach would have been to have a centralised database where only authorised State government officers had access to register objects, or at least an agreement on the level of information to be documented. This would have ensured that the process from State to Federal level was more controlled and standardised across the country. This, some feel, was a key omission. There is evidence of discussion surrounding the preparation of an amnesty database based on the fields used by Aboriginal Affairs Victoria (WA Museum File, MA-4/93, vol. 3, Fax, 14/01/1993) but this appears not to have happened. A national database, even now, would certainly be an effective start to organising the entire national collection and establishing a single source of information for this resource. It could also introduce some consistency to the level of information for the material and facilitate access and further analysis.

The amnesty collections provides insights into the behaviour of private collectors and divers who collected shipwreck objects, such as why they collect, what they collect, whether locations of shipwrecks influenced their choices of sites to visit, how significance of a wreck was measured, what their collections meant to them, what impact their activities have on shipwrecks, how these affect interpretation of sites affected, and whether this collecting behaviour has changed over time. It also raises questions about the early diving culture in relation to wreck discoveries by pioneer divers and changes to the ‘value’ allocated to objects over time (Robinson, 1980: 81; Cropp, 2006: 113).


There is no doubt that there were problems with the 1993 Historic Shipwrecks amnesty, notably that it was under-funded and a drain on the resources of the State agencies. The amount of staff time and resources which went into the project, and the responsibilities associated with the resulting collections, leaves one wondering how cost-effective and worthwhile an amnesty really is. Two other shipwreck amnesties have to my knowledge been held since—in 2001, a three-month wreck amnesty was held in the United Kingdom (Maritime and Coastguard Agency, 2001), and in 2003 a wreck amnesty was declared in Bermuda. There is limited information on the Bermuda amnesty and very little overall information to enable comparisons between these wreck amnesties and the Australian one. Both however were different in that one authority was involved rather than several as was the case in Australia.

Australia's experience has demonstrated the crucial need for sufficient resources, effective procedures and efficient management to be in place in all States and Territories for an amnesty to be successful. It was done to encourage members of the public to come forward with what they had, but with little thought given to the consequences especially in the long term. The Commonwealth Act gives people a maximum of 30 days to report their discoveries to the Minister, so the amnesty essentially provided people with more time to declare their collections. It could be seen, in part, as a ‘moral’ desire for authorities to make this provision. Nevertheless, having offered the amnesty and publicised relevant legislation nationally, authorities are now in a stronger position to prosecute persistent offenders in the post-amnesty period.

Interestingly, some members of the public as well as archaeologists feel that another amnesty should be declared to give a chance to those who have yet to declare material from protected sites, and those who have unwittingly inherited relics. The problem with declaring another amnesty, however, is that this may give the impression that there may be other amnesties in future so people can still loot sites or even refrain from declaring artefacts in anticipation of a future amnesty. The implication in the suggestion is that there is suspicion that some collectors have still not yet declared their historic relics and are in danger of being prosecuted. Not surprisingly, since the end of the amnesty, the Australian Federal police have seized protected shipwreck relics from some members of the public who failed to declare them. In most cases, State authorities prefer not to use this sort of heavy-handed approach, particularly where individuals come forward to ‘donate’ or declare their relics to State agencies in the post-amnesty period, many genuinely unaware of the amnesty or legislation. Some shipwreck objects also occasionally surface for sale via eBay without a certificate or sale permit. Such actions highlight the lack of awareness among some collectors about the legal requirements to declare or transfer custody of historic shipwreck relics.

This paper emerged as part of a research project investigating human impact on shipwreck sites, and human behaviour associated with private collecting of shipwreck objects. The amnesty collections are for the most part an untapped resource, yet clearly have potential to aid further archaeological investigations including site-formation processes for those sites affected, and providing comparative data for archaeologically-recovered material. On that basis, the amnesty was probably worth all the effort and resources that went into it.


Funding for this research was provided by a Postgraduate Research Grant (SSCS) and a Graduate Research Travel Grant, both from the University of Western Australia, as part of the author's doctoral research. Thanks to Peter Harvey and Cass Philippou (Maritime Heritage Unit, Heritage Victoria) for their support and financial assistance; to David Nutley, Kieran Hosty, Mike Nash, Myra Stanbury, Cos Coroneos, the late Terry Arnott, Peter Gesner, Andy Viduka and Jane Balme for their help during my research. For feedback on earlier drafts of this paper, the author thanks Myra Stanbury, Mack McCarthy, David Nutley and Bill Jeffery.