Malta’s strategic position, its closeness to the major civilisations of the central Mediterranean, its involvement, often unwillingly, in the great conflicts of the area, has given it a depth of history and cultural heritage disproportionate to its size. Since prehistoric times, Malta and Gozo have been the destination or staging post of an ever-growing maritime trade operated from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other.

At various times in the island’s maritime history, the sea around it has become the resting place of great trading vessels tragically shipwrecked or ships and aircraft caught in the crossfire of aerial or sea battles around its shores. These are now a part of Malta’s underwater archaeology, enriching the surrounding waters with a wealth of relics.

The sea around Malta is dotted with hundreds of aircraft wrecks that plunged into the sea during World War II as well as ships and craft from across the centuries. A Roman shipwreck carrying a cargo of mortars had been found at Mellieħa Bay in the 1960s. One 2,700-year-old Phoenician wreck was discovered off Gozo and is thought to be the oldest in the central Mediterranean. Explorations have also yielded important historical artefacts, including North African amphorae, a massive lead stock of a Roman anchor and other Roman anchor stocks.

It is therefore curious, if not indeed remiss, that Malta has not had a proper administrative and technical organisation to safeguard this heritage. This is finally to change. The islands’ rich and diverse underwater heritage is about to receive the extra level of attention and protection it deserves with the establishment of a dedicated unit within Heritage Malta.

In the light of the long-standing pressure by the University of Malta for the establishment of such a body, it is most apt that the new Underwater Cultural Heritage unit will be led by maritime archaeology professor Timmy Gambin. The aim of the unit will be to protect and increase public awareness of Malta’s underwater remains.

Prof. Gambin rightly noted that any nation had an obligation to share its cultural heritage. He considered that Heritage Malta had taken a bold step in placing underwater cultural heritage under its wing. “Through the unit’s activities, we will be sharing this heritage not only with those who can access it, such as divers, but also with the public,” he said.

Importantly, the unit will be supported by new legislation aimed at regulating access to wrecks, where divers have regularly complained of the free-for-all that prevails. The proposed law will include proper registration for diving schools and the restriction of irresponsible practices at sensitive sites.

While the unit will initially focus on outreach programmes to educate the public about the importance of this unseen cultural heritage, it must also ensure that its safeguarding role will not be ignored. For example, it must ensure that the imminent massive developments project on Manoel Island will not threaten any archaeological remains and deposits that may lie on the bottom of the waters around the shores there.

The new Underwater Cultural Heritage unit needs to draw up a programme of the long-term strategies for the protection of this precious heritage. It must also systematically take stock of the underwater archaeological resources dotted around the Maltese islands in order to protect them.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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