Italy took part, along with other Mediterranean countries, in a major UNESCO underwater archaeological mission. The mission’s discoveries will be presented this fall in Paris.
Experts of Italy’s Ministry of Culture took part in the first underwater multilateral archaeological mission under the auspices of UNESCO on the Skerki Bank and in the Strait of Sicily.
Beginning on August 21 and ending on September 4, the mission involved international underwater archaeologists aboard the ship Alfred Merlin, provided by the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research of the French Ministry of Culture (DRASSM), with economic and logistical resources provided by the countries involved.
Eight Countries were involved in the mission’s preparation process, initiated in 2018 by Italy and Tunisia under the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Tunisia coordinated operations in the area of Skerki Bank on the Tunisian continental shelf, while Italy coordinated operations on the Italian continental shelf and in the Strait of Sicily. Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Morocco, and Spain were also part of the mission.
From the very beginning, Italy supported the mission, the first to translate into practice the dictates of the 2001 UNESCO Convention. Italy traditionally takes part in the Organization’s programs and initiatives, providing significant financial contributions, ideas, and personnel contributions.
Given the geographic location of Banco Skerki, Italy was involved in all the preparatory stages of the initiative, which UNESCO considers of particular importance
In particular, through the Secretary-General, and in close coordination with the Italian Representation to UNESCO, the Italian Ministry of Culture coordinated all the preliminary and preparatory activities. The Ministry set up a working group that included Italy’s Foreign Ministry, the National Superintendency for Underwater Cultural Heritage (which coordinated the archaeological survey at sea on the Italian continental shelf), the Superintendency of the Sea of the Sicily Region, the University of Palermo, and several experts in international law.
The Carabinieri’s General Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage also provided important logistical support to ensure connections with the French unit, and to allow adequate rotation of the scientific team on board.
The Foreign Ministry oversaw the coordination of the delicate final stages of the preparation, particularly concerning the granting of permits on the Tunisian side and the negotiation of the complex agreement reached between the participating countries only one day before the start of the mission.
On 24 August the Merlin began its activities in the Strait of Sicily, on the Italian continental shelf, focusing on the area where, between the end of the 1980s and 1990s, Robert Ballard and his crew identified tens of wrecks from ancient and post-ancient history. The UNESCO team explored the area using an ROV called Arthur, designed for archaeological surveys in deep waters. In this case, Arthur reached a depth of about 850 meters.
Afterward, the Merlin headed towards the Tunisian side of the Skerki Bank, where it carried out archaeological surveys in shallow waters.
The results of the Multilateral Mission will be presented at UNESCO in Paris in the fall, hopefully representing the first step in lasting multilateral cooperation in the Mediterranean.