Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation Libya

Archaeo­logists attack BP’s drilling plans

Damage feared to underwater sites off the coast of Libya, after Gulf disaster

Underwater relics at risk? (Photo: Jonathan S. Blair/National Geographic/Getty Images)

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

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 metres 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 harbour submerged five metres 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 colonisation 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.

In the wake of the Macondo blowout, teams of scientists are in the process of analysing water samples in the Gulf and monitoring the 22-mile oil plume floating 3,500 ft. under the sea. According to BP spokesman Robert Wine: “So far no notable volumes of oil have been found on the seabed,” but added that “studies will continue.”

The biggest concern is that oil could congeal on the seabed, coating wood, stone and metal artefacts, hindering the recovery of traces of organics, pollens, DNA and “timbers so fragile that when excavated they have the consistency of ricotta cheese”, said Delgado. Sites such as Sabratha are so close to the shore that large waves often cover portions of the ruins. Oily waves could harm Sabratha’s delicate mosaics.

“I don’t think drilling should be allowed until sufficient studies are completed to ascertain the effects of oil movement in the water and the risks to historic shipwrecks and other underwater cultural heritage sites,” said Steven Anthony, the president of the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society.

According to Delgado advance seismic surveys are the key to protecting these sites: “The [oil] industry already does this, especially in the Gulf. The other safety measures I would like to see are, I am sure, ones the oil and gas industry would also like to see” he said, adding that many of these measures are already being applied. “The Gulf spill was not beneficial to BP on many fronts, albeit it was a rare accident. I cannot believe they want to see a repetition.”

Robert Wine stressed that BP has conducted archaeological and seismic surveys off the coast of Libya and that its “oil spill plans for Libya have been reviewed in light of the Gulf of Mexico incident”. He also said they intend to drill many miles offshore, “well beyond any possible ancient sites”.

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