Concern over fate of antiquities lying on the seabed

When a few months ago a leading light in the field of underwater exploration, Robert Ballard, visited Athens, he warned Greeks to guard their wrecks as if he knew what was coming. A bill just released by the Merchant Marine Ministry on underwater diving appears to have raised the more general issue of protecting antiquities in Greek waters. The draft legislation bans recreational diving at underwater archaeological sites. However, the problem is that there are not only specifically designated sites but many others that have not yet been delineated. And because this is Greece, there is no guarantee of protection since the state is not in a position to check the looting of antiquities. The majority of archaeologists have taken issue with the provisions of the bill, as have several environmental organizations such as the Hydra Ecologists’ Association «Hydran Seal,» the Society of Greek Archaeologists and even professional fishermen who claim the bill will be the coup de grace for their industry. The Environment and Sustainability Chamber recently held a two-day conference to air all their existing reservations about the ministry’s bill on «recreational diving.» As concern mounts, given the fact that Greece resembles an entire unguarded maritime museum, more groups are joining in the protests against the bill, and the issue has gone from the Greek to the European Parliament. Naturally, the seabed is not an easy place to protect archaeological treasures. For example, in recent years the Underwater Antiquities Ephorate, in cooperation with the Hellenic Center for Marine Research, has found 25 wrecks, but experts know there are more than 1,000 in Greek waters. The seabed cannot be guarded in the same way as antiquities on land; ancient wrecks and their cargoes are at the mercy of anyone who knows how to dive. There have been attempts to loot a wreck containing sarcophagi near Methoni, the wreck at Porto Koufo on Alonissos, the post-Byzantine wreck of Nisyros, a Byzantine wreck off Kastellorizo and another off Antiparos, among others. A statue retrieved by fishermen from the seabed off Kythnos three months ago could have fallen into other hands, as occurred with the «Saarbrucken» statue that has been returned to Greece and is now on exhibit in the National Archaeological Museum. Critics of the bill also warn that new technology, including the use of bathyscapes, has heightened the risk of illegal activities in Greece’s seas. Among the more general issues raised by archaeologists, and one which should concern the Culture Ministry, is whether the Merchant Marine Ministry’s coast guard service has enough staff to police not only Greece’s underwater archaeology but its ecosystems.

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