The underwater expedition of archaeologists also collected high-resolution images of three Roman wrecks originally discovered by oceanographer Robert Ballard and archaeologist Anna Marguerite McCann in the 1980s and 2000s. The researchers’ findings were presented on Thursday during a UNESCO press conference in Paris.
Twenty scientists from Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia embarked on the French research vessel Alfred Merlin on a 14-day voyage between August and September, according to CNN.
Using remotely operated submersibles, the researchers explored the banks of the Skerka in Tunisia and the Sicilian Canal in Italy.
The team used the survey vessel’s underwater mapping equipment to catalog shipwrecks from ancient times to the 20th century using sonar.
Remote-controlled submersibles have dived to depths inaccessible to humans to collect images and videos of sunken ships and their artifacts. One of the vehicles was able to reach depths of 2296 to 2952 feet (700 to 900 meters).
Located along a busy route in the Mediterranean Sea, Skerki Bank in the Sicilian Strait is considered one of the most dangerous maritime areas. Its shallow waters are characterized by heavily rocky seabeds, some of which are less than 3.2 feet (1 meter) below the water’s surface.
For more than 3,000 years, the dangerous features of the Skerka coast have led to shipwrecks, sinking of ancient merchant ships, as well as ships during the Second World War. The area is of interest to researchers because the route served as a point of contact between different cultures crossing the Mediterranean, says CNN.
The wreck was discovered at a depth of about 1,350 feet (411 meters) and was captured on sonar images. The researchers intend to return next year with a remotely controlled submersible to capture the crash site.
One of the vehicles descended into the most dangerous area of Skerkey Bank, called the Whale Reef, to conduct the first detailed study of the ocean floor. Three ships, all previously unknown to researchers, rested at the bottom of the Tunisian continental shelf.
Two of the wrecks were likely from the late 19th or early 20th century, including a “large metal wreck with a motor” without any trace of cargo. In this wreck, investigators noted that davits that could have been used to launch lifeboats were facing outward, meaning the crew may have been able to abandon the ship. The second ship was most likely a wooden fishing boat.
The third shipwreck is probably associated with a merchant ship that sailed between the first century BC and the second century BC. A remote-controlled underwater vehicle spotted artifacts that appeared to be amphoras or tall jars with two handles and narrow necks used by the Greeks and Romans, possibly to store wine.
The team hopes that browsing through the archives will help reveal the individual names of the wrecks, as none of them were easily identifiable.
Meanwhile, exploration on the Italian continental shelf has unearthed three Roman shipwrecks dating between the first century BC and the 1st century BC, including two merchant ships and one freighter. All three artifacts are scattered across the seabed, including amphorae, pottery, building materials, jugs, pots, and lamps.
These items were likely part of the trade between cultures that crossed the Mediterranean thousands of years ago, CNN notes.
“We are about to write a new page in the history of trade,” said Barbara Davidde, underwater archaeologist and director of Italy’s national underwater cultural heritage authority. “Through the analysis of the cargo, we can study the relationship between the countries of the Mediterranean and the maritime trade that connected the various parts of the Mediterranean.”
Surprisingly, the wrecks and their artifacts have suffered little to no damage since they were discovered between 1988 and 2000.
The wrecks were originally located outside territorial waters, which meant that their artifacts were easy prey to plunder. Now the areas around the sunken ships will be protected in accordance with the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
This designation will allow more accurate mapping of shipwreck sites and the definition of protection zones.
“We recognize the enormous potential and importance of underwater cultural heritage,” said Lazar Eloundu Assomo, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “UNESCO has made a strong commitment to supporting underwater archaeological missions of this type around the world. As you know, the Mediterranean, with its very rich history, countless shipwrecks and archaeological sites, is a unique and exciting destination for such expeditions.”
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