Malta’s underwater heritage is to come under increased protection with new laws to regulate access to historical sites and artefacts that dot the seabed around the islands.
The breakthrough in legislation, expected to be announced in the coming weeks, was revealed by marine archaeologist Timmy Gambin.
His team, which is part of a University of Malta and Heritage Malta project, has been making substantial headway in surveying the Maltese seabed with a view to documenting the findings, making sure they are protected and opening up regulated access to the public.
The process is a laborious and painstaking one that has been going on for the best part of the last two decades, involving block-by-block investigation of the seabed.
It will now allow Heritage Malta to offer Maltese and foreign divers regulated access to a significant number of underwater wrecks going back to the two world wars.
Dr Gambin is the man who, in 2016, led a team of highly experienced divers for first-time explorations of a Phoenician wreck that was discovered off Gozo and which has been deemed to be the oldest shipwreck in the central Mediterranean.
The explorations yielded a number of historically significant results and artefacts, such as amphorae from North Africa and western Sicily and grinding stones made of lava, which originated in Pantelleria.
Access to underwater heritage sites such as wrecks has so far not been specifically regulated. Many divers have complained of a free-for-all scenario with the sites subjected to plundering and to irresponsible practices that threaten their safe-keeping.
Another complaint is to do with safe access to wrecks, with divers citing the need for marker buoys and moorings for dive boats at a number of popular sites, as well as the need to restrict fishing and protect from anchorage in the area.
Why should anyone feel that it is acceptable to take an amphora from an old shipwreck?
Besides protecting such sites, the new system is expected to offer local diving schools the opportunity to register with Heritage Malta, against a fee, in order to be able to take divers down to the listed zones. Boats transporting divers to a close proximity of the sites will also be required to register.
“Luckily, most people appreciate the necessity of protecting these sites and artefacts. After all, it would never occur to any of us to visit, say, the Domus Romanus and just take one of the exhibits. So why should anyone feel that it is acceptable to take an amphora from an old shipwreck?” Dr Gambin said.
But how will these regulations be enforced? After all, an underwater wreck is a different kettle of fish from your average museum entrance, where ushers are stationed and CCTV cameras are ready to record any wrongdoing.
“It’s going to be a joint effort between all the authorities involved, including the University, Heritage Malta and patrol boats,” Dr Gambin said.
“As soon as a boat moors off the wreck, its registration will be confirmed or otherwise against our database. Registered diving schools are also encouraged to inform us if they spot unauthorised divers around these wrecks. It is in their interest to make sure the system works smoothly – it is in the interest of everyone who values our cultural heritage, actually.”
So far, about one-third of the seabed has been thoroughly mapped in an on-going process that started some 20 years ago and that will now result in previously unimagined documentation.
This documentation will be used not only to allow Maltese and foreign divers to experience the findings at first-hand but will also become part of our above-ground heritage in the shape of interactive museum exhibits featuring 3D prints of the actual sites.
A Heritage Malta exhibition that runs in Victoria until the end of August and that focuses on the discovery of the Phoenician shipwreck has already garnered substantial interest from Maltese and foreigners thanks to state-of-the-art technologies and interactive features. Dr Gambin plans to continue building on its success for future exhibitions.
The marine archaeologist hopes to see elements of these underwater findings become part of the national history curriculum, thus offering an interactive aspect to an academic subject which, he fears, is becoming increasingly unpopular. He is also working on using VR (virtual reality) as an experiential aide in classrooms.
“The idea is to ensure Malta continues to stay in line with the UNESCO Convention of 2002, which lays down public access to heritage sites as a matter of principle.
“As a nation we have matured considerably and most people recognise the importance of protecting these historical sites, and any artefacts found on them. This is why access needs to be regulated, as it is for above-ground sites like, say, the Hypogeum,” Dr Gambin concluded.
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