Department of Underwater and Submarine Archaeological Research

Actor status: 
Academic and research institutions
Official name: 
Direction des recherches archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marines
Main organisation: 
Ministère de la Culture
Contact person: 
Michel L'Hour
Phone number: 
0033 4 91 14 28 00
E-mail address: 

In 1966, France became the first country in the world to create a specific organisation to ensure the protection, study and development of its underwater heritage: DRASSM, the Department of Underwater Archeological Research. This organisation, which employs a team of 40 researchers and administrators, is responsible for submerged cultural heritage at a national level. Its base, Marseille, is the historic capital of diving and the worldwide cradle of underwater archaeology.

The DRASSM manages a maritime zone of global dimensions: an exclusive economic zone of 11 million km' from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. It administers and develops a substantial cultural heritage of great typological and chronological diversity, from the Cosquer Cave (28,000 BP) to Saint Exupery's Lightning P38 (1944).

Since its creation, the DRASSM has carried out the professional evaluation, directed the study, or supervised the excavation of more than 1500 underwater archaeological sites in mainland France, French overseas departments and territories as well as foreign countries (Brunei, Egypt, Gabon, Libya, Malta, Pakistan, Philippines, Solomon Islands, USA, among others). Responsible for the application of the heritage Code (Book V, Title Ill, Chapter 2 et Title IV, Chapter 4), the DRASSM ensures the protection, study and the development of underwater cultural heritage (UCH) together with the other government bodies representing the State at sea (Maritime Prefecture s, Maritime Affairs, Customs, etc.).

The DRASSM lists and evaluates the entire panoply of discoveries and maritime cultural remains within its remit: 49 shipwrecks inventoried in 1966, nearly 6,000 in 2012; an estimated 20,000 along the coasts of Metropolitan France alone. The DRASSM grants survey and trial excavation authorisations, evaluates planned excavation requests and overseas archaeological operations in the public maritime domain. It directs surveys, evaluations and planned excavations.

The DRASSM occasionally works beyond mainland French borders at the request of foreign governments in assessment or excavation operations. It oversees preventive archaeological projects in the public maritime area: aggregate dredging, wind farms, coastal development, ports, dykes, anchorages, aquaculture, outfalls, gas pipelines, etc. The DRASSM maintains a maritime sites record, the "Archaeological Map" in order to ensure improved protection of maritime cultural remains and to better define research priorities. The DRASSM, on behalf of the National Archaeological Research Council assesses requests for compensation submitted by site discoverers.

The first step the DRASSM took was to establish closer contacts with the police, particularly the judicial Customs which is a branch of the French Customs. We preferred this service because we worked very often with him and his investigators had repeatedly expressed their interest in the fight against the traffic of underwater cultural heritage. Archaeologists of DRASSM organized specialized training for the benefit of Customs investigators, however, that they made us benefiting on their experience in investigating and fighting against international trafficking. This experience has shown that the association between police and archaeologists al lows faster progress in the investigations. Thus, it is hardly a week goes DRASSM has no meeting or at least telephone conversations with investigators of the Customs. Thanks to this strategy, we conducted the last seven years many investigations and joint missions. Our second decision was to seek methodically information about the looting, neglect no evidence and systematically bring complaints against unscrupulous divers or companies offense. This undoubtedly deterrent for offenders also allowed us to meet more regularly with prosecutors and judges, to know them better and help them to have a better awareness of the protection of underwater heritage. At the same time, we better understood ourselves how a case should be brought to justice to hold his attention even though the courts are already cluttered with a lot of common law cases from which the looting of a shipwreck can sometimes appear as a folder of little importance.

After seven years, the first results of this new offensive strategy are far from negligible. Real success has even been recorded. Thus, nearly 3000 significant archaeological objects have been seized or recovered in the very beginning of this new strategy, in the years 2007-2008.

Based on these initial results, we are also concerned to better protect contemporary wrecks of which looting has too long benefited from the leniency of the police and justice but also, admittedly, from the archaeologists themselves. We have refocused our strategy and we have undertaken in the years 2007 and 2008, to systematically inform divers that the contemporary wrecks should also be protected. Then we commissioned inquiries after 2009 that have slowed trafficking. On this occasion, we also began to monitor more closely the online shopping sites on the internet and we repeatedly requested the intervention of Customs to seize items sold on Ebay.

This recovery in general labor went far beyond the scope of our borders because our actions allowed us to prevent looting carried out in other maritime territories than ours. In particular, we intervened with the authorities in Madagascar and we were able to stop in the Mozambique Channel the looting of a rare Portuguese wreck of the early 16th century. We also had the opportunity to block the illicit export of cultural property of great maritime archaeological value. Finally, we offered our assistance to the Malagasy Government to ensure the preventive conservation of bronze guns illegally taken from the site and seized by the French Customs in Indian Ocean.