Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Shockwaves as shipwreck looters arrested


Malta Today
By Karl Schembri
September 18, 2005

Heritage chief calls for amnesty of artefact finders
An amnesty to divers who report their own findings of underwater heritage artefacts would be the next logical step for the government to effectively start preserving national heritage buried under the sea.

The call comes from experienced deep water divers and maritime heritage experts, and endorsed by the very same government agency that would be responsible for the upkeep and public exhibition of these artefacts – Heritage Malta.

Mario Tabone, the chairman of the entity entrusted with Malta’s heritage sites and museums, told MaltaToday that he agreed with a policy of granting a definite period of amnesty for whoever volunteers to present underwater artefacts to the authorities, on a similar model as adopted in the UK a couple of years ago.

“It would be a good idea,” he said. “It would boost our records of underwater treasures and our exhibits if the conscientious divers were allowed to return their artefacts without fear of being investigated.”

MaltaToday’s revelations last week of police arrests of scuba divers looting underwater artefacts has created a wave of positive reactions from the Maltese diving community, as investigators were questioning more suspects.

But divers speaking to this newspaper say the government is not investing enough in recovering, preserving and exhibiting underwater national treasures, giving a freehand to unscrupulous divers to pilfer shipwrecks and most of the seabed of its relics.

“One cannot really blame those who think they should keep these artefacts,” one shipwreck diver said. “The message they get from the government is that these finds are not that important. They feel they can appreciate them much more than the authorities.”

An amnesty coupled with a government commitment to exhibit underwater treasures for the public would definitely help boost public awareness. In the UK, a similar amnesty led thousands of divers and owners of underwater heritage artefacts came forward with previously unreported objects of historical and archaeological interest.

Tabone believes the same would happen in Malta.“I had insisted that underwater heritage finds are protected by law in the same way we protect national treasures found on the ground,” he said. “Let’s start a clean slate and give an opportunity to whoever has such items to come forward to us.”

Sources in diving circles says deep water diving is increasing in popularity around the islands, with sophisticated technology making it possible for so called technical divers to reach previously unreachable depths.

Some expert diving groups involving Maltese and foreigners who are notorious for pilfering shipwrecks were arrested in the last weeks in an unprecedented police investigation.

“They just act like cowboys,” sources said about one of the diving schools investigated.

With the long-time underwater criminal practice finally coming out in the open, bona fide divers are lauding the efforts to clamp down on scuba thieves, although foreign divers reacting to MaltaToday’s story confirmed the “cowboy” mentality reigning in some technical diving circles.

“If you won't compensate the diver for those things, then do not be surprised when the diver keeps the item for himself, or sells it to someone willing to compensate him,” one American diver of the “Underwater Explorers” community said in an e-mail. “If you're so upset that you're not getting to have or see these items ... learn to dive and go get them yourself. Then there will be nobody to have to worry about compensating.”

Derided, and deplored, by heritage experts as the underwater version of Indiana Jones, these self-appointed, unauthorised treasure hunters are making a lucrative worldwide business out of the retrieval of artefacts from shipwrecks, despite international heritage conventions and divers’ codes of conducts advocating a “look, don’t touch” approach.

A Maltese diving instructor said: “Technical divers are a great resource of knowledge of what’s hidden under the sea, so one shouldn’t just condemn pilfering without engaging the serious majority who can help monitor these sites in collaboration with the government. It would be short-sighted to focus just on prosecution while heritage authorities keep neglecting these treasures.”


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