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Albanian archeologists: we must protect our heritage!

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Researchers and archaeologists warned that hundreds of Roman and Greek artifacts and ancient shipwrecks sitting under Albania’s barely explored coastline are in danger of falling prey to looters or treasure hunters if not properly protected.

According to James Goold, chairman of the Florida-based RPM Nautical Foundation, the objects date from the 8th century B.C. through to World War II. The foundation has mapped out the Ionian seabed from the Greek border to the Vlora Bay, finding at least 22 shipwrecks from the ancient times to World War II and hundreds of ancient amphorae.

Albania is trying to protect and capitalize on its rich underwater heritage, long neglected by its former communist regime, but preservation still receives scarce funding from the government in one of Europe’s poorest nations.

Those long, narrow terra-cotta vessels carried olive oil and wine along trade routes between North Africa and the Roman Empire, where Albania, then Illyria, was a crossroad.

“The time has come to build a museum for Albanian and foreign tourists,” said Albanian archaeologist Neritan Ceka.

Some amphorae may have already been looted; they are not infrequently seen decorating restaurants along the coastline.

The arrival of RPM’s Hercules research vessel 11 years ago was “a real revolution,” Ceka said, praising its professional divers, high-tech sonar and remotely operated underwater vehicle.

RPM and a joint Albanian-Italian expedition are the only scientific underwater efforts in Albania so far, both with the government’s approval. RPM believes it’s time to explore the possibilities of excavating shipwrecks, a financially expensive and scientifically delicate process.

INA’s David Ruff, a former commander of a nuclear-powered submarine, said “one of the real gems of Albania is the Butrint site” — a UNESCO-protected ancient Greek and Roman site in southernmost Albania close to the Greek border. He concluded “There’s a special environment in Albania, because the coast has been so protected for so many years.”