Diving Robbers Are Looting Underwater Treasures

Robbing marine antiquities is hardly a lucrative business but fish aren't about to enforce international maritime law, leaving archaeology authorities almost helpless to stop the thieves.

Diving at a 4th century C.E. Roman shipwreck still not found by looters: it shows how removing one can ruin many.
Diving at a 4th century C.E. Roman shipwreck still not found by looters: it shows how removing one can ruin many. Elaine Ferritto, Albanian Center for Marine Research

A few years ago, the remains of a crusader-era shipwreck and a horde of gold were found underwater, in the bay of Acre, and have now been reported. If the archaeologists had tarried, they might have found little beyond ancient rotting timbers.

Diving robbers looting underwater sites are the bane of marine archaeologists. The items stolen from the sea floor, ranging from coins to amphorae to a life-sized bronze statue of Apollo to scrap metal from World War II warships, are usually sold on the black market. Worse, stopping the ravage of the ancient sites is all but impossible, the authorities admit: they can hardly post underwater guards.

The problem of maritime looting is especially acute in Israel, say experts.

The narrow Levantine coast has been inhabited throughout human history and traces of long-vanished civilizations remain on land and under water, observable to intrepid divers.  A least if they dive soon, before thieves steal the lot and ruin the rest. One artifact for sale is often symptomatic of the destruction of hundreds of others, experts wail.

The marine environment can be kind to archaeological artifacts, even sometimes preserving organic material such as wood through burial in sand. Ships that sank off Israel were covered quite quickly in sediment, since there is no headland or islands to shelter the shoreline. And after millennia of sailing, the 200-kilometer long Israeli coastline is covered with shipwrecks, which are all too vulnerable to thieves.

In fact, many of the intact ancient bronze statues that have survived from antiquity come from the sea, since those on land were melted down for reuse.

Seeking fish, catching gold

Every storm exposes new artifacts on the seabed. It is often a matter of who gets there first  – the authorities or thieves.

Shortly, after the Israel Antiquity Authority had reported the discovery of more than 2,000 gold dinars in Caesarea in 2015, treasure hunters seeking the same fortune visited one of the shipwrecks that Dr. Deborah Cvikel excavated.

“In one of the seasons when we returned to excavate the shipwreck, we discovered that some sandbags, that the previous season put to protect the shipwreck, had been removed. Some had been cut by knife, leaving the wood exposed. We found wooden pieces broken and removed from the hull,” she reported to Haaretz.

A bronze embolos - a ram used aboard ships of antiquity to smash holes in enemy vessels. This one tipped off police to looting at the naval battle site of Egadi Islands, Sicily.
Peter Campbell, RPM Nautical Foundation

Unfortunately, this is no isolated incident. The fishermen of Acre are famous for their golden catches, catching not only the increasingly rare fish of the Mediterranean but gold coins and amphorae with their dragnets.

“Fishermen believe that everything that is in the sea belongs to them. God sent them to this place to bring it with their net,” Jakob Sharvit, director of the IAA Marine Archaeology Unit, explains to Haaretz. But they don't necessarily realize, or accept, that they can't keep their treasure, under the Antiquities Law (1978).

For example, a recent raid by the antiquities police found more than 100 pottery vessels and items in a private house in Acre. In Jaffa and Tel Aviv, restaurants and cafes not rarely display amphorae fished out of the sea. In private houses, gardens may well be decorated with an ancient stone anchor found underwater .

"Israel has no law against selling antiquities," Sharvit explained to Haaretz – exclusively through merchants certified by the IAA, who have to maintain meticulous records of all antiquities that pass through their hands, to show the artifacts did not reach them through robbery or looting.  

Fishermen, or just anybody who found antiquities before 1978 (when the law was enacted) have to prove their find was made earlier, after which they can get permission to possess the artifacts. If they can't prove it, the state can confiscate the object for 90 days for testing, Sharvit says: "Analyses can show whether the object had been found a year ago or 40 years ago. Handling depends if the person cooperated and provided information and hands over the artifact – or not, which can result in criminal proceedings."

All that applies to fishermen and the like. Deliberate diving robbers are a whole other story.

Protecting marine archaeological sites isn't easy, though not that many people have diving licenses or the itch to steal things from underwater archaeological sites.  The Israeli Navy controls the sea, and 200-kilometer Israeli coastline, but isn't in the business of thwarting underwater looters.

In any case, the navy or antiquities authority can only enforce what power they have in Israeli territorial waters, leaving the international waters unprotected, says Ehud Galili, former director of the Marine Archaeology Unit.

Stealing gods in Gaza

For all the digging and looting, sometimes wonderful treasures still resurface. One day in 2013, a local fisherman, Jawdat Abu Ghrab, discovered a rare bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo in the sea outside the town of Deir Al-Balah, Gaza.  

Picture taken in Gaza on September 19, 2013 shows a 2,500-year-old life-size bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo discovered by Palestinian fishermen Jawdat Abu Ghrab.
Gaza Ministry of Tourism, AFP

The 1.7-meter-tall work weighed about 300 kilograms. With some help, Abu Ghrab extracted it from the water and put into his family's home, with the statue's male parts covered up. After some weeks, rumors of the statue spread and the Palestinian authorities confiscated it, promising to pay Abu Ghrab some fraction of the statue's value as compensation. 

The Palestinian Antiquities Authority for one says it's worth around $340 million, according to al-Jazeera, which could help explain why the fisherman reportedly hasn't received the promised compensation.

In any case, the statue mysteriously vanished from the public eye in April 2014, though it had been in the possession of the police. Possibly looting isn't confined to thieves.

It bears adding that some experts, including Jean-Baptiste Humbert, director of le Laboratoire d’Archéologie de l’École Biblique in Jerusalem, don't buy the story of the fisherman finding the statue in the sea near Egypt. The statue's color and excellent condition argue that it was discovered inland, underground, they say. Why would the fisherman lie? Possibly to avoid arguments of ownership or to avoid revealing that it was found while digging tunnels to nearby Egypt.

"What comes from the sea is often reported by fishermen. The sea is very shallow in Gaza, about 5 meters. The popular mentality says that the sea belongs to nobody…They do not feel like thieves,” Humbert claims.

Looting in the Mediterranean

Of course, the problem of undersea looting is not just an Israeli one..

Nearly all known underwater sites of divable depth in the Mediterranean have evidence of looting, says Dr. Peter Campbell, a marine archaeologist researching the subject, and the marine archaeological sites in Israel are no exception. It is a huge problem.

Campbell has seen entire ancient shipwrecks smashed in search for their valuables.

In fact, a naval battle site from the 3rd century B.C.E. located off the Egadi Islands, Sicily was only discovered by archaeologists after a bronze ram was found in a private collection during a raid by the Italian carabinieri (police),  Campbell says.

Another project he is involved in, surveying dozens of shipwrecks dating from archaic to modern times in Grecian waters in the Fourni (Phournoi) archipelago in Greece, was prompted by stories from sponge divers about looting in the 1960s. The divers tell of hundreds of amphoras being taken from the wrecks.

The world's worst investment

Even if the glory of the ancient world must indeed pass away, it seems unnecessary to speed its process by destroying marine archaeological sites. But the oceans of the world have been left to the mercies of treasure hunters.

The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states that anything you find at sea belongs to you, in effect contradicting the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

“Looting underwater cultural heritage is indeed an increasing problem, including in the Mediterranean," Dr. Ulrike Guerin, UNESCO Secretariat of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage told Haaretz. "The UNESCO Member States have adopted already in 2001 the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, in order to improve protection, but also to foster international cooperation and scientific research. It is hoped that all the countries in the region, including Israel, will ratify this convention as soon as possible.”

At least Israel is in good company with United States, England and France, which haven't ratified the convention either. The UK is holding a parliamentary inquiry on whether or not to ratify.

Galili says that here, the minister of foreign affairs declined to allow ratification, so Israel is not a signatory, in no small part because the U.S. isn't either, he says. In the U.S., treasure hunting  companies, some of which even listed on the stock market, have a lobby.

It bears adding that the treasure hunters may be better at tapping investors than the depths: their actual returns have been abysmal, reports Bloomberg: salvaging shipwrecks does not benefit investors and achieves nothing but the destruction of cultural heritage.

Another problem is international enforcement. Many nations have legislation for their territorial waters, but marine law is complex and enforcing it can be difficult.

“It often falls to border security and customs officials to stop the trafficking of underwater cultural heritage. Officers can look out for ceramics or metals that are covered in marine growth – shells, coral, or calcium deposits – as an indicator of recent looting," says Campbell. "Complete ceramics that are declared or appear to be of great age often come from the sea, as ceramics do not often survive hundreds of years intact on land."

Enforcement may be too little, too late, though.

On a personal note, as an underwater archaeologist, I have seen looted underwater sites. Recovering a complete amphora often requires destroying the objects around it due to processes of marine concretion.  

In 1938, when underwater pioneer and marine biologist Hans Hass began exploring the Levantine coastline, he reported off all kinds of artifacts and ceramic vessels resting on the seabed, such as amphorae, weapons, nails, lances, copper rods, silver and gold coins and statues. Most of these items are long gone from the seabed. They are on display at restaurants, cafés, in private collections, in museums, or in private homes and gardens.