Divers plunder Greece's sunken treasure troves
Government move to boost tourism backfires as looters descend on antiquities.
Helena Smith in Athens The Guardian, Friday 30 January 2009
For centuries they have lain forgotten and untouched in the murky depths of the Mediterranean... But the sunken glories of Greece are now threatened by modern treasure hunters, who are targeting their riches since the lifting of a ban on coastal scuba-diving.
At risk, say archaeologists, is an unseen part of the country's cultural patrimony, comprising thousands of shipwrecks dating from Classical, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine and early modern times and their priceless cargoes of coins, ingots, weapons and gold.
"Greek waters are some of the richest in antiquities in the world," said the marine archaeologist Katerina Dellaporta. "Thanks to very stringent controls over underwater exploration shipwrecks have been extremely well preserved."
Until recently divers were allowed access to just 620 miles of the country's 12,000 mile coastline, but in an attempt to boost tourism, the conservative government opened the country's entire coastal waters to underwater exploration in 2003. Since then, looting has proliferated, say archaeologists.
Treasure hunters, encouraged by scuba-diving websites from America to Australia, are homing in on the "archaeological sea parks" armed with hi-tech scanners, cameras and nets.
One US-based diving company offers on its website an exhaustive list of "underwater treasures" which have been discovered by scuba divers, including sculptures, jewellery, warrior helmets, Phoenician beads, vases, and a variety of personal items reflecting life in the region in ancient times, from oil lamps to medical supplies.
"Man has been sailing the Greek seas for more than 9,000 years," it says. "This means that ships have been sinking for over 9,000 years - ideal for treasure hunters."
It offers a fleet of 400 yachts, some with crews, and "customised" diving packages for everyone from beginners to experienced divers as the "best way to discover Greece".
Marine archaeologists, who have appealed to Greece's highest administrative court to reverse the relaxation of the law, also point to the surge in blogging by divers boasting of their finds.
Last summer, one police raid intercepted two trucks crammed with ancient artefacts discovered in a wreck off the island of Kalymnos.
But with growing numbers of would-be looters posing as tourists on yachts, Greece appears ill-equipped to tackle the problem.
Unlike Italy, which has units of specially trained divers and helicopters to chase underwater thieves, Greece has an art squad that is under-funded and, with just 20 members, woefully understaffed.
The sheer scale of the problem is also an issue: an estimated 6,000 wrecks are believed to dot the Greek seas, with most of them in the Mediterranean, where entire submerged cities are thought to exist.
"The future of archaeology is in the water - on land most riches have been discovered - but in the sea there are thousands of sunken ships with cargoes that have yet to be found," said Harry Tzalas, a marine archaeologist who has discovered numerous treasures off the coast of Alexandria in Egypt.
"Each time an artefact is removed from the sea its value in terms of information and context is automatically lost, a tragedy for archaeologists."