During the rule of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s brutal communist dictator, the oceans of Albania were strictly off limits, with strict orders to shoot anyone who was caught diving without the proper authorisation.
Fast forward 28 years and the waters of Albania are open to all; tourists, divers, thrill seekers, explorers, archaeologists, but also looters who are intent on plundering the treasures that lie beneath the surface. Its vast, unexplored waters are home to an untold number of relics that document the countries diverse, and at times, turbulent past. Sunken ship parts, Illyrian pottery, and shell-encrusted treasures hold a multitude of secrets and stories about the people that transversed these waters over the last millennia and beyond.
Neritan Ceka, a local archaeologist, is one of the few voices that is advocating for urgent measures to protect the priceless heritage that lies underwater around its coast.
“Much of this wealth is resting at a depth of 20-30 meters and it is is easily accessible without any special equipment and has almost completely disappeared without a trace”, he stated in a recent interview.
At the beginning of the 1980s, under the watchful eye of Enver Hoxha’s henchmen, some archaeologists and soldiers were allowed to plumb the depths and it was then that Neritan first laid eyes on the treasures that the seabed held.
“I saw extraordinary richness, amphoras, pottery, archaeological objects that are no longer there today. Teams of European and even Albanian divers have started to loot in a barbaric way.”
Over the last decade, the US-based RPM Nautical Foundation has carried out expedition work along the coast, uncovering some 40 shipwrecks in immediate territorial waters. Some of the vessels found date back to the 7th Century BC, whilst more modern finds include Naval Ships left over from WWI and WWII.
Objects found amongst the skeletons of these sea-faring vessels include countless Roman amphoras with some vases going for around EUR 100 on the black market in Albania. Many high-end restaurants proudly display them, whilst some are shipped to London and other artistic hubs where they command four, five, and even six-figure sums in the presence of specialist collectors. Other prized discoveries are smuggled out of the country and sold to private museums and collectors, ensuring that not one penny of the money made, ever returns to the country that it belongs to.
The historical artefact industry is capable of generating over $4 billion every year, with countless other billions being made on underground and private markets.
One such example of the systematic raping of Albania’s underwater cultural heritage is the SS Linz- an Austro-Hungarian ship that was sunk of the coast of Albania in 1918. The ship sank killing the 1000 passengers on board, but this was no deterrent to pirates who stripped it of valuables to display in a private museum in Austria.
In addition to selling items to museums and collectors, many 20th century warships are being stripped for their high quality steel, as steel manufactured before ay nuclear explosions in the world, lacks any radioactivity and can be used for sensitive medical and scientific equipment.
One such vessel, the Hungarian-Croat steamer, the ‘Pozsony’ sunk just off the coast of Durres in 1916. When it was first discovered in 2013, it remained remarkably in tact, but just three years later there was almost nothing left. A similar fate befell the ‘Po’, an Italian medical ship that sunk in 1941 off the coast of Vlore. When it was first found, its hull remained in excellent condition but since then it has been completely dismantled and all valuable objects such as the bell, telegraph, lights, and compass, have been removed, with prices ranging from EUR 5000 to EUR 100,000 a piece.
Whilst the Albanian government has taken some steps to protect the secrets of the deep, some say that this is too little too late. A new law was passed in June 2018 that classified shipwrecks as cultural monuments with strict licenses required for diving teams. Local police are also collaborating with Interpol to trace and return stolen artefacts, but at the time of writing, there has not been one positive outcome.
The fact of the matter is that these items should have never been removed in the first place and stringent measures should have been in place to protect the relics of Albania’s maritime history. With just EUR 30,000 a year set aside in the budget for archaeology, it remains clear that history, culture, and preservation are not high on the governments agenda.
Whilst there is sure to be a wealth of undiscovered bounty beneath the waves, the sad reality is that much of it has been dismantled, stolen, smuggled and sold, right under the noses of the Albanian government. With so many keys to the countries past, lost and auctioned off to the highest bidder, it is no wonder that many do not understand the vast diversity of their origins.