Roman shipwrecks

Archaeologists attack BP’s drilling plans

By Emily Sharpe - The Art Newspaper

From Greek and Roman shipwrecks to 20th-century warships; from ancient streets with intact buildings and mosaics to amphorae and ingots, the Mediterranean is a sub-aqueous treasure trove.

So BP’s plans to drill exploratory oil wells off Libya has raised serious concerns among archaeologists, historians and heritage preservation organizations. 

The global energy giant says that it will begin the $900m project to drill five exploratory wells in the Gulf of Sirte “before the end of this year” despite the fact that the cause of the blowout of its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico has yet to be determined.

The Libyan wells will be 200 meters deeper than the Macondo.

“An oil spill off the coast of Libya would be a complete disaster,” said Claude Sintes, the director of the subaquatic team of the French archaeological mission to Libya and director of the Museum of Ancient Arles, France.

According to Sintes, there are two archaeologically rich areas along the Libyan coast—Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Within Cyrenaica lies Apollonia, an ancient harbor submerged five meters under the water. “It’s a complete town under the sea with streets, walls and houses. Slow tectonic movement caused it to sink,” said Sintes. 

Tripolitania, which extends from Tripoli to the Tunisian border, includes two important ancient sites on the shore: Leptis Magna, a once powerful Roman city and harbour, and Sabratha which has the remains of a theatre and a Roman bath with spectacular mosaics. Both are Unesco World Heritage sites.

“These sites are archaeologically significant because they allow us to understand the complete evolution of this part of the world from Greek colonization in the seventh century BC to the Arab invasion in the seventh century AD,” said Sines.

James Delgado, the president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, stressed the archaeological importance of the Mediterranean as a highway for ideas, trade and settlement, noting that thousands of wrecks from various historical periods lie within in its depth.

“There is a complete record of thousands of years of history on the bottom of the Mediterranean,” said Delgado. Both Sines and Delgado said that although the area is still largely yet unexplored, given its significant history they expect significant finds in the future.