By Llazar Semini
Once Europe's most forbidding coast, this sparkling stretch of the Ionian Sea is slowly revealing lost treasures that date back 2,500 years and shipwrecks from ancient times.
Over the past two summers, a research ship carrying U. S. and Albanian experts has combed the waters off southern Albania, using scanning equipment and submersible robots to seek ancient wrecks.
In what organizers say is the first archeological survey of Albania's seabed, at least five sites were located, which could fill in blanks on ancient shipbuilding techniques.
The project would not have been even imaginable just 18 years ago, when the small Balkan country was still ruled by Communists who banned contact with the outside world.
The brutal regime pockmarked the countryside with more than 700,000 bunkers, against a foreign invasion that never came. Instead, the Communists were toppled after a student-led revolt in 1990, which opened Albania to the world.
"Albania is a tremendous untapped (archeological) resource," said U. S. archeologist Jeffrey G. Royal from the Key West, Fla.-based RPM Nautical Foundation, a non-profit group leading the underwater survey.
"With what we've discovered until now we may say that Albania is on a par with Italy and Greece."
The latest expedition has revealed traces of four sunken Greek ships dating from the sixth to the third centuries BC, while another three suspected sites have still to be verified.
In comparison, the 2007 season netted signs of just one ancient wreck.
"The discoveries are very important because of the lack of properly documented objects from that period," said Andrej Gaspari, a leading Slovenian underwater archeologist who was not involved in the project.
"The only ships found and documented from that time belong to the western Mediterranean and Israel . . . so our knowledge on the technology used for construction of ships is more or less limited."