Sunken Greek treasures at risk from scuba looters

Sun Feb 22, 2009 8:05pm EST
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By Lefteris Papadimas and Daniel Flynn

ATHENS (Reuters) - A corroded mechanism recovered by sponge divers from a sunken wreck near the Greek island of Antikythera in 1902 changed the study of the ancient world forever.

The Antikythera Mechanism, a system of bronze gears from the 2nd century BC, was used to calculate the date of the Olympic Games based on the summer solstice. Its mechanical complexity was unequalled for 1,000 years, until the cathedral clocks of the Middle Ages.

Archaeologists believe hundreds more wrecks beneath the eastern Mediterranean may contain treasures, but a new law opening Greece's coastline to scuba diving has experts worried that priceless artifacts could disappear into the hands of treasure hunters.

"The future of archaeology in this part of the world is in the sea," said marine archaeologist Harry Tzalas. "This law is very dangerous, it opens the way to the looting of antiquities from the seabed which we don't even know exist."

Greece's 1932 antiquities law says all artifacts on land and in the sea belong to the state, but it does not regulate scuba diving, developed in the 1940s by Frenchman Jacques Cousteau.

A new law implemented in 2007 and designed to promote tourism opens most of Greece's 15,000-km (9,400-mile) coastline to scuba divers, except for about 100 known archaeological sites.

Greece's archaeologists' union and two ecological societies have appealed for the law to be rescinded. Meanwhile, some tour companies are luring tourists with the promise of ancient artifacts. "Scuba diving in Greece is permitted everywhere ... Ideal for today's treasure hunter," says one website (

Katerina Dellaporta, director of antiquities at the Culture Ministry, says metal detectors and bathyspheres allow treasure hunters to find artifacts with ease in the Adriatic and Aegean.   Continued...

<p>Two visitors draw a statue known as "Artemision Jockey", which has been salvaged from the sea, inside Greece's National Archaeological museum in Athens February 20, 2009. REUTERS/John Kolesidis</p>