Cutting edge

November 5, 1999

The Mediterranean is rich with underwater sites revealing our past, but laws are needed to stop them being plundered 'We stumbled on the remains of a ship that showed these huge earthenware vessels had been permanently fastened to

the hull ... the Romans had built tankers to transport low-quality wine, while the best wine travelled in amphorae' There are thousands of known wrecks of ships from Greek, Roman and medieval times scattered around the coasts of Italy, with thousands more still to be found. I was trained as a "land" archaeologist, but around 1970 I met some amateur scuba divers who had been diving in a lake north of Rome. They told me they had seen the remains of a fishing village from the Bronze Age. So I began diving, and discovered that around the Bronze Age many lakes had risen by several metres, and had preserved traces of villages built on their shores.

After much research in lakes we moved on to the sea. Most of what we have found so far had been reported to us by recreational divers. These wrecks are all precious in reconstructing the past: the way ships were built, the kind of commerce that went on, and so on.

One example: every now and then fishermen would accidentally catch in their nets huge earthenware vessels up to 2m wide. We had no idea what they were until we stumbled on the remains of a ship that showed that these vessels had been permanently fastened to the hull. In other words the ancient Romans had built tankers to transport low-quality wine, while the best wine travelled in amphorae.

The sea around Italy has also yielded some great treasures. The best known are the Riace Bronzes, which were fished out in around 1970. These are two larger-than-life Greek statues of warriors, from the 5th century BC, which were probably being taken to Rome by a collector when the ship sank. Another wonderful find was a submerged city near Naples, a kind of underwater Pompeii, with the ruins of houses and even mosaics. There are many others.

The point is that the Mediterranean is an amazingly rich source of information on the distant past. Moreover, the deeper you go the better preserved everything is. This is because there is less salt in the water, wave motion is much weaker and there is no light. After the Ustica plane crash near Sicily in 1981 a robot submarine that was searching for wreckage of the plane came across a ship laden with amphorae at 3,200m. It was much better preserved than anything we have found in shallow waters. We know it is there and one day, when we have the equipment, we will be able to examine it further.

This is just one example of why international legislation to protect the undersea heritage is necessary. Today there are 12 miles of territorial waters, plus a further 12 miles of "cultural heritage" jurisdiction, recently established by most countries, which Italy still has to ratify.

But beyond these 24 miles anyone can come along and legally take what they like, possibly destroying important evidence in the process.

There is an ongoing Unesco initiative to try to extend national archaeological jurisdiction to the entire Mediterranean. Italy and other Mediterranean countries are in favour, but the United States and the United Kingdom are against this, possibly because it could establish a principle that might restrict the movement of ships.

It would be terrible if commercial enterprises started taking material away to sell to antique dealers and collectors. The legal problems are tricky, not least because the situation varies so much from one part of the world to another. In some parts of the Caribbean, for instance, it is quite normal for a commercial enterprise to get permission from the local government and split the profits. It is a complex situation, but one that needs to be tackled.

Claudio Mocchegiani Carpano heads the Underwater Archaeological Service of the Italian Heritage Ministry, which was founded in 1986. He works with a score of diver-archaeologists from the ministry and about 60 from various universities. He also teaches underwater archaeology at the University of Naples.

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