Underwater cultural heritage - Arnold Cassola
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Underwater cultural heritage - Arnold Cassola

Archaeological artefacts found around Manoel Island.

Archaeological artefacts found around Manoel Island.

It was a pleasure to read in this newspaper that Malta’s underwater heritage is set to receive an extra level of attention and protection with the setting up of a dedicated unit within Heritage Malta.

The primary aim of this new Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit will be to protect and increase public appreciation of underwater remains.

Malta, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, must be a treasure trove of submerged archaeological remains spanning through at least a couple of millennia, from Punic times to the Roman period, followed by the Byzantine, Arab and Medieval ones, not to speak of the era of the Knights of St John and the 164 years of British domination.

The most exciting recent underwater discovery is the Phoenician shipwreck lying around one mile off Gozo. This wreck, which is around 2,700 years old, is believed to be the oldest in the central Mediterranean.

I can just imagine the excitement of Timmy Gambin and his team when they discovered this ship, laden with amphorae and Pantelleria grinding stones, lying in Gozitan waters, off Xlendi, at a depth of 120 metres.

Gambin has rightly stressed that: “Any nation has an obligation to share its cultural heritage. Heritage Malta has taken a bold step by taking underwater cultural heritage under its wing. Through the activities of this unit, we will be sharing this heritage not only with those who can access it, such as divers, but also with the general public.”

The relevance of this Underwater Archaeological Unit becomes even greater on the background of the recent debate concerning the fate of the archaeological remains to be found in the seas surrounding Manoel Island.

In fact, in 2011, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage had already “noted that the site of the proposed Manoel Island development lies in a harbour area of archaeological potential and that disturbance of deposits on the seabed may uncover archaeological remains”.

Archaeologist Reuben Grima and myself have recently highlighted a 2013 academic study that had drawn the attention to submerged structures at Manoel Island that could go back to the Roman period.

Following that press conference, Steven Evans wrote in a Facebook post that he had “discovered much Roman pottery around the shoreline during my diving days and with the Mary Rose team during our survey. There is reputed to be a possible wreck in Sliema Creek located by the Royal Navy’s fleet clearance team under John Gratton when they were based at Manoel Island in the 1950s”.

We now have concrete proof that the waters around Manoel Island have yielded archaeological remains and could, in fact, be the burial place of other remains

A Sliema resident pointed out to me how years ago he had fished out of the sea, in front of the Nazzarenu church, a huge fragment that must have once formed part of a Punic or Roman amphora.

Another resident, who in olden times used to dive frequently in the murky and silty waters between Sliema Ferries and Manoel Island, confirmed to me that every time strong gales hit the area, it was common to find archaeological artefacts on the seabed.

This person did not limit himself to telling me about what used to happen. Instead, he actually presented me with few fragments of pottery which seem to really be objects of archaeological importance. These range from the mouth of an amphora, to a circular bowl, to the ‘ear’ of an amphora, to the bottom pointed tip of an amphora. One expert has actually suggested that one of these could go back to the Italo-Hellenic period, 500BC. These finds have been regularly reported to the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage.

Other curious objects which were washed up on shore after the fierce gale which hit our island around three weeks ago were also handed to me, and again reported to the SCH.   

Once we now have concrete proof that the waters around Manoel Island have yielded archaeological remains and could, in fact, be the burial place of other archaeological remains still to see the light, how can we allow the MIDI developers, who made such a mess of the Tigné peninsula, get on with the works in the waters surrounding Manoel Island?

This area should be passed on to the newly established Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit, which should be the sole authority entrusted with exploring the seas around Manoel Island, in accordance with the latest technologies available.

Entrusting greedy developers with the works in the Manoel Island waters – even if under the supervision of the Superintendence – is simply not on.

Our historical and cultural heritage can only be really protected if works are managed, carried out and overseen by experts whose sole aim is the enrichment of our country’s heritage and not by business people, whose only real aim in life is quick and easy monetary profit.

Arnold Cassola, independent candidate at next MEP elections, is former Secretary General of the European Green Party and former Italian Member of Parliament.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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