Robert Ballard, a leading expert in the field of underwater exploration visited Greece a few months ago and warned Greeks about what is to come. The Merchant Marine ministry has just released a bill on underwater diving that seems to have raised the more general issue regarding the protection of antiquities in Greek waters. Experts are aware of over 1,000 wrecks in Greek waters that are all vulnerable to looting by antiquities thieves.
The draft legislation bans recreational diving at underwater archaeological sites. But the problem arises from the fact that not only are no specifically designated sites been delineated but many others are yet to be demarcated. Since the state in Greece has no position to check the looting of antiquities there is no guarantee of protection.
A majority of archaeologists as well as several environmental organizations such as the Hydra Ecologists’ Association “Hydran Seal,” the Society of Greek Archaeologists and even professional fishermen, contend the provisions of the bill. They claim that the bill will be the coup de grace for their industry. In order to speak out the various existing reservations about the ministry’s bill on “recreational diving” a two-day conference was recently held by the Environment and Sustainability Chamber.
The fact is that Greece forms an entire unguarded maritime museum. Due to which concerns are mounting and more groups are joining in the protests against the bill. As a result the issue has gone from the Greek to the European Parliament.
It is obvious that the seabed is not an easy place to protect archaeological treasures. For example, in recent years 25 wrecks have been found by the Underwater Antiquities Ephorate, in cooperation with the Hellenic Center for Marine Research, but experts know of more than 1,000 wrecks in Greek waters. Since the ancient wrecks and their cargoes are at the mercy of anyone who knows how to dive, the seabed cannot be guarded in the same way as antiquities on land. 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, amongst others.
Fishermen retrieved a statue by from the seabed off Kythnos three months ago. This could have fallen into the wrong hands, as was the case 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 of the heightened risk of illegal activities in Greece’s seas with the use of new technology such as the bathyscapes.
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.