Archaeologists From Eight Countries Team Up to Explore the Skerki Banks

Coordinated by Unesco, the project will examine the underwater site between Sicily and Tunisia

the Alfred Merlin
The Alfred Merlin, France’s new high-tech underwater archaeological exploration ship Photo by Denis Thaust / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

For centuries, the Skerki Banks—a shallow region of the central Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Tunisia—was one of the busiest maritime trade routes in Europe. Now, archaeologists from eight countries are teaming up with Unesco to explore the historic underwater site, which is likely home to hundreds of shipwrecks from various points in history.

The ambitious project is underway now, with researchers from Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia exploring the Skerki Banks aboard the new high-tech Alfred Merlin archaeological research vessel. The ship is on track to dock at Bizerte, Tunisia, on September 3, reports the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris.

The international archaeologists have two main goals for this mission, reports Al-Monitor’s Rina Bassist. The first is to take stock of shipwrecks discovered on the Italian side of the Skerki Banks in the 1980s and ’90s. Researchers want to see if the wrecks are still in good shape, or if they’ve been damaged by looters and fishers.

The second goal is to survey the Tunisian side of the continental shelf, checking to see if any shipwrecks or other artifacts are resting on the seafloor—and, if so, what condition they are in.

“The idea today is to try to draw up an inventory of the wrecks that may be there,” says Michel L’Hour, a French archaeologist participating in the mission, to Franceinfo’s Boris Hallier, per Google Translate.

Once the researchers know exactly what historic items are resting on the seafloor, they can then take steps to protect them and hopefully someday make them accessible to the public.

“This is the main goal of the project: to know in order to protect and also in order to facilitate access to the public to … those cultural resources of heritage,” Alison Faynot, who is leading the expedition for Unesco, tells Al-Monitor.

Planning for this mission began in 2018, when representatives from the eight countries came together and agreed to collaborate to protect underwater artifacts in the Mediterranean, per Unesco. Over the past four years, the experts have been holding meetings and working out the logistics of this summer’s expedition.

The collaboration with France on this project is especially helpful, since the country now has one of the most sophisticated underwater archaeological research vessels in the world. France’s department for underwater archaeological research unveiled the new Alfred Merlin last summer.

The large vessel features many “technological innovations,” according to a statement from the French government, including specialized underwater robots and detection and measurement systems. The vessel, named in honor of the French archaeologist who led the world’s first underwater excavation in 1907, also has enough room and storage capacity for 28 people to live for ten days at sea, per the Art Newspaper’s Dale Berning Sawa.

Though its shallow, rocky reefs made it treacherous for seafarers to navigate, the Skerki Banks long served as a high sea trade route between Carthage and Rome’s supply port of Ostia. Between 1988 and 1997, American archaeologists, including Robert Ballard and Anna Marguerite McCann, explored the area and discovered the remains of a 19th-century British naval ship called the Athenian, as well as vessels that sailed during World War II.