Meeting on protection of Skerki Banks underwater heritage

First two-day conference with countries in UNESCO convention

11 June, 15:03

    TUNIS - A two-day international cooperation meeting for the protection of underwater heritage concludes on Tuesday in Tunis, with a letter of recommendations signed by various countries partnering in the mission to protect the important underwater archaeological heritage area of Skerki Banks.

    Skerki Banks is located in international waters between Sicily, Sardinia, and Tunisia, a crossroads of ancient and modern Mediterranean trade routes.

    During the two days, representatives from Italy, Algeria, Egypt, Spain, France, Morocco, and Tunisia discussed practices to adopt to best protect Skerki Banks, an underwater cultural heritage site protected by the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

    Italy began the procedure for UNESCO recognition of the site, and the country last year became the leader in the protection and safeguarding of underwater cultural heritage.

    The site measures more than 700 square kilometres, is 200 metres deep, and holds numerous archeological treasures of exceptional historical, artistic, and cultural value, including five ancient Roman shipwrecks dating from the 1st century B.C.

    to the 4th century A.C.

    According to information provided by the Region of Sicily's Superintendency of the Sea, the oldest of these shipwrecks is 30 metres long and contains amphorae and other terracotta vases.

    Other items that have been documented include ancient coins and utensils in glass and bronze.

    The site is also where the famous WWII Battle of Skerki Bank took place, in which British Royal Navy ships sunk a convoy of Italian and German ships, leaving additional relics spread across the sea floor.

    Faouzi Mahfoudh, general director of the Tunisian National Institute of Cultural Heritage, said this first meeting is part of a process aimed at enacting cooperation between the parties in the Convention, in order to face challenges in protecting underwater heritage.

    The meeting will help define the phases and the mission of each member country in the protection of the archaeological site.

    Lazare Eloundou Assomo, secretary of the 2001 UNESCO Convention, noted that this first meeting took place some 18 years after the signing of the Convention.

    He said the work done here in Tunis will be presented at the 7th Meeting of State Parties to the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which will take place in Paris on June 20 and 21.

    Mohamed Bouhlel, secretary general of UNESCO Tunisia, said actions aimed at protecting the site will include information sharing between member states as well as technical and scientific cooperation.

    Wafa Ben Sliman, a Tunisian expert on underwater heritage, said Skerki Banks, nicknamed the "Graveyard of Mediterranean Relics", dates to the Punic, Roman, and Muslim era. Sliman said the site will be the focus of a scientific project that aims to create an international research laboratory specialised in underwater heritage.

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