Shipwrecks ahoy? Unesco’s underwater mission scours sea bed off Italy for archaeological treasures

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An underwater archaeology expedition coordinated by Unesco and involving experts from eight countries has launched in the Skerki Bank sea area between Sicily and Tunisia. A dozen marine archaeologists are currently scouring the sea bed—once one of the busiest maritime routes in the world—searching for shipwrecks dating from antiquity to World War II. On 22 August, Unesco’s director general Audrey Azoulay tweeted: “An underwater mission coordinated by Unesco goes in search of archaeological treasures off Tunisia and Italy.”

The expedition began on 24 August when the Alfred Merlin archaeological research vessel left Trapani in Italy. The boat is exploring the Tunisian continental shelf until 3 September and is due to dock in Bizerte following its initial voyage around the coastline of Sicily. When the Alfred Merlin was launched early last year by the French department for marine archaeological research (Drassm), the state-of-the-art ship was described as a gamechanger.

The Alfred Merlin investigates shipwrecks around the world Photo: Teddy Seguin/DRASSM

“This mission constitutes an important step in a cooperation project that started already in 2018 when eight countries—Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia—decided to protect together what they believe to be shared underwater cultural heritage in the Mediterranean. All eight are countries that have ratified the 2001 Unesco convention on protecting underwater cultural heritage,” Alison Faynot, who is coordinating the mission on behalf of Unesco, told the Al-Monitor website.

Unesco officials have highlighted “the exceptional archaeological potential of the Skerki Banks” adding that between 1988 and 1997, several US operations explored a vast area in the Strait of Sicily. “These expeditions were among the very first large-scale operations in deep-sea archaeology and made it possible to locate at least eight extremely well-preserved wrecks from various periods,” they add in a statement. These include the wreck of the Athenian, a British Royal Navy ship from the early 19th century. Michel L’Hour, the mission’s French representative, told the Franceinfo website that the “idea is to try and draw up an inventory of the wrecks”.

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