Greece guards sunken treasures

ATHENS – Hidden somewhere in an anonymous Athens office building lies an adventurer’s ultimate dream – a modern-day map charting in detail more than 1,000 ancient shipwrecks still submerged in Greek seas. For centuries, generations of treasure hunters have explored the depths around the Greek mainland and its offshore islands, but only since the development of new technologies have marine archaeologists been able to track down the hundreds of wrecks hidden in the idyllic waters. And they don’t want to share the information with amateurs out for a quick buck. «These (shipwrecks) have been recorded electronically, they are everywhere,» said Aikaterini Dellaporta, director of the Culture Ministry’s Department of Underwater Antiquities. «If we ever publish the map, I fear that a lot of areas will have diving restrictions,» she said. The Greek authorities reward those who stumble across something of historical value by chance. Many treasures found in the past were discovered by fishermen or sponge divers. Treasure hunting is illegal in Greece and scuba diving is allowed only in a few restricted centers alongside 500 kilometers (310 miles) of the country’s 15,000-kilometer coastline. The authorities are concerned that antiquities found by amateur divers could end up on the black market, scooped up by shady collectors around the world. Greek marine archaeologists have documented and mapped more than 1,000 shipwrecks – the oldest near the island of Dokos in the Gulf of Argos – dating back to 2200 BC, as well as sunken cities, many submerged in ancient times by powerful earthquakes. Deep-sea diving Many of the discoveries are quite new, as only in recent years have archaeologists been able to explore depths greater that 40 meters (130 feet), where most wrecks lie, aided by the latest sonar technology and deep-sea diving vessels. They have also been using an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) developed in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But some of the key findings are still made the old-fashioned way, with fishermen hitting the jackpot with their nets. The highest reward ever paid out by the Central Archaeological Council was 440,000 euros for the discovery of an ancient Greek female statue caught in fishermen’s nets off the island of Kalymnos in 1995. And two years ago, when a mysterious green lump got caught up in his net, a fisherman off a remote Aegean island dove down to depths of more than 35 meters (115 feet) to discover some 50,000 silver-plated copper coins welded together by the sea. The coins, found off the island of Astypalaia, dated back to the third century and the find earned the fisherman a 350,000-euro reward. His information led archaeologists to four ancient shipwrecks, one containing a lead sarcophagus thought to have belonged to a Roman officer who had died in the Middle East. Another vessel was carrying a large consignment of everyday clay pots, which represented the first record of the full range of household pots used in the Roman era. And another, dating from the third century BC, was carrying exceptionally fine amphorae, or jars, containing wine or oil, from the island of Kos. A further 12 wrecks, dating from the second century BC to the third century AD, have been discovered recently around the Dodecanese islands in the eastern Aegean, some at depths of up to 90 meters (295 feet), Dellaporta said. Unwanted visitors But most of the wrecks discovered so far have either already been looted, damaged by fishermen’s nets or illegal dynamite fishing. Despite generous rewards from the Greek Culture Ministry, many artifacts found by fishermen still end up on the black market. «There is a huge black market, from Roman and Renaissance times to the present day. Even today, there is widespread money laundering and legal loopholes exist. Many leading international auction houses often don’t know the identity of the anonymous buyer or seller of a particular item,» Dellaporta said.