Elena Perez-Alvaro

Elena Perez-Alvaro

Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage
Doctoral researcher

Contact details

Title of thesis: Legal Threats On The Underwater Cultural Heritage: Human Remains, Dark Matter And Climate Change

Supervisor: Dr John Carman

Doctoral research

PhD title Legal Threats On The Underwater Cultural Heritage: Human Remains, Dark Matter And Climate Change
Supervisor Dr John Carman
Course Cultural Heritage MA by Research/PhD (On-Campus or by Distance Learning)


The study of shipwrecks is essential to history because entire continents have been discovered, colonised, invaded and defended by sea. Shipwreck sites do not only feature the vessel itself -often a once-magnificent artefact- but they also often hold cargo, personal items, tools, utensils and human remains. Shipwrecks are unique time capsules but a shipwreck without a precise provenance is of limited historical significance.  However, shipwrecks are important not only for being an undiscovered source of heritage, but also because is a source of legal disputes and international confrontations: shipwrecks can become valuable fortunes.

Drawing on my previous studies in law, history of art and cultural heritage, and combining these to advantage, my research deals with the protection and management of shipwrecks through three specific issues:

  1. Human remains as watery graves: protection of shipwrecks containing human remains.
    Shipwrecks from almost 500 years ago still contain human remains. There are no laws on the preservation of human remains in shipwrecks.  What are the criteria to decide which shipwrecks containing human remains deserve respect and protection?
  2. Is the preservation in situ the best option on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage (UCH)? Climate change and how it will affect to shipwrecks.
    One of the common agreed principles in preservation of UCH (2001 UNESCO Convention) is the preservation in situ (Rule 1): archaeological objects are better preserved under layers of mud and in saline water. However, the climate change may affect not only to the marine environment but also the oceans. Will shipwrecks remain well preserved or there is a need for a change on the management of UCH?
  3. Shipwrecks as a source for dark matter: scientific approach and public international legal protection.
    Italy’s new neutrino detector, CUORE (Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events) received 120 archaeological lead bricks from a shipwreck for research into particle physics because of its low radioactivity. Could the “renting” or “sale” of these shipwrecks for non-economic goals fund future projects of other shipwrecks which are worth preserving?

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