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November 19, 2018

Looters plunder Albania’s treasures


November 19, 2018

Albania’s long underexplored coastal waters have become a hotspot for treasure hunters scooping up ancient pottery, sunken ship parts and other shell-encrusted relics that have lain on the seabed for centuries.

The 450-kilometre coastline, which is lapped by the Adriatic and Ionian seas, was off-limits under the communist regime which ruled the Balkan state until 1990, with orders to shoot anyone caught diving without authorisation.

But today its waters are open, luring archaeologists but also looters eager to plumb the new territory and sell their finds on the art and metals markets. "Much of this wealth resting at the depth of 20-30 metres is easily accessible without any special equipment and has almost completely disappeared without a trace," said Albanian archaeologist and art historian Neritan Ceka, among those calling for urgent measures to protect the underwater heritage.

While diving at the beginning of the 1980s -- under communism, archaeologists and soldiers were permitted -- he was one of the first to see for himself the seabed treasures, he said. "I saw extraordinary richness, amphoras (terra-cotta jugs), pottery, archaeological objects which are no longer there today," he added.

Teams of European and Albanian divers "have started to loot in a barbaric way", he lamented. Expeditions carried out since 2006 by the US-based RPM Nautical Foundation have found some 40 shipwrecks along Albania’s coastline, including vessels dating back to the 7’th century BC and naval ships from World War I and II.

Hundreds of Roman-era amphoras -- used to store wine, olive oil and other goods on trade vessels -- are also clustered on the sea floor, covered in marine plants. Experts say that without a full inventory, it is impossible to know how many of the artifacts have been plucked from the seabed and sold on the international art trafficking market.

The market overall generates a global turnover of more than $4 billion a year, according to Auron Tare, who chairs Unesco’s scientific and technical advisory body on underwater cultural heritage.

"But what is certain: a treasure hunt below the seas can bring in big profits," said Moikom Zeqo, an underwater archaeologist who helped discover a 2nd-century BC Roman ship carrying hundreds of amphoras.

The vases can be sold for up to 100 euros in Albania, where they are on display in some high-end restaurants, or auctioned for much greater sums in London and other art capitals. Other prized discoveries have been ferried home by foreign divers and placed in various private museums around the world, such as the bell of an ill-fated Austro-Hungarian ship, the SS Linz, that sunk off Albania’s northwest coast with 1,000 passengers on board after striking a mine in March 1918. "These objects from the SS Linz, exhibited in a private museum in Austria, must be returned to Albania," said Tare, who also heads the Albanian Center for Marine Research.

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