Digging in the deep | Timmy Gambin

If people cannot appreciate Malta’s underwater heritage, for themselves: TIMMY GAMBIN – Associate Professor of Maritime Archaeology at the University of Malta, and head of Heritage Malta's Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit – argues that underwater heritage must be ‘taken to the people’

Timmy Gambin (James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Timmy Gambin (James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

A large stretch of seabed off Xlendi has just been inaugurated as a deepwater archaeological park: billed as ‘the first of its kind’, anywhere in the world. But while that certainly sounds intriguing... the park itself is situated at a depth of between 105 and 115 metres. Now: my understanding – as someone who has never gone scuba-diving, even once - is that ‘105 metres’ represents a rather daunting depth, even for a highly experienced diver. How, then, can this site actually be appreciated, by those of us who cannot possibly ever visit it, in person?

Interestingly enough: for us, that very question was the starting point for the entire project. When we say that this park is a ‘world first’, it's precisely because it is at a depth of 105-115 meters... and also, because of the unique way the ancient deposits have been distributed, over an area of around 65,000 square metres.

But we are also aware that, for the same reasons, the site is completely inaccessible, to all but a very few divers from around the world. Because, yes: 105 metres IS very deep, in scuba-diving terms. In fact, if you took the whole world’s population, and – for argument’s sake - fed it into a ‘filtration system’, to remove all the people who cannot physically access this site: straight away, you’d have to filter out all the millions of people who either can’t, or won’t, or never had the opportunity, to dive at all... and already, that’s the vast majority of the world’s population, wiped off the list.

What remains are the people who CAN dive... but then, can they dive to 105 metres? If we are talking about recreational divers, the answer is almost certainly going to be ‘no’.  Depending on the agency providing the training – what we call ‘open circuit training’, in this case - some will train beginners down to 35 metres; others to 45. But there is this kind of ‘unspoken limit’, that – using only a normal cylinder of compressed air – the maximum depth a diver can reach, in relative safety, is around 50 metres.

So to come back to our ‘filtration system’: of the small percentage that had remained, we now have to weed out the vast majority who can only dive to a very maximum of, say, between 35 and 45 metres. This leaves us only with a minuscule percentage of divers, around the world, who ARE capable of reaching much greater depths.

These people do exist; they're referred to as ‘technical divers’, and – just to give you an idea of what it entails - they dive with a mixture of gases (not just compressed air); and they would have to do a number of lengthy decompression stops, on the way back to the surface. To spend just 12-14 minutes on the seabed, it would take them around three hours coming back up. All in all, it's pretty challenging.

But this brings us back to your original question. Did we go through all the effort of opening up a deepwater archaeological park, just to cater for this very tiny number of people?

My answer is ‘No’; it’s the exact opposite, in fact. Not in the sense that the site itself will be off-limits, to any technical diver who IS capable of conducting such a dive. Like I said: these people exist, so... why not cater for them?

But from the very beginning, the challenge we faced was another. We had this unique site – 65,000 square metres of archaeological deposits: and also a rich, unique underwater bio-diversity – but no way of ever bringing people to actually visit it. And our philosophy, all along, was: just as you can buy a ticket to go and visit, say, Fort St Elmo, or Mnajdra Temples... shouldn’t people have the opportunity to appreciate all other aspects of our country’s cultural heritage: including the ones that lie on the seabed?

So the question became: instead of ‘taking people to the site’, like we usually do... how do we ‘take the site to the people’? And, well, the easiest way for me to answer it, right now, is to just show you directly.

[Here I am handed a headpiece; and upon wearing it, I suddenly find myself transported to a point around 65 metres beneath the sea, approximately 1.5km off the coast of Marsaskala. For the next five minutes, I am treated to a 360-degree, 3D virtual tour of the wartime wreck of HMS Southwold: and also, of the astonishingly abundant marine life around it. Back to interview].

Wow. That was... ‘immersive’, to say the least. And it brings up a question that I hadn’t actually thought to ask. Effectively, that was my first-ever glimpse of what it feels like, to actually ‘dive’. And while I always had this notion, that ‘Malta has a rich underwater heritage’...  I had no idea that it could be every bit as impressive, up close, as Malta’s megalithic temples, or Baroque churches. Given that your own experience, as an underwater archaeologist, is the very opposite of mine: do you perhaps feel that the marine aspects of our cultural heritage are ‘undervalued’, compared to their terrestrial counterparts?

Let me put it this way: Malta claims – and rightly so – to be very proud of its cultural heritage. We have slogans such as ‘Malta: home to 8,000 years of history’; posters showing ‘silhouettes of Valletta’; or a traditional ‘Luzzu’, etc;  and we always boast of having such a massive concentration of archaeological sites... on land.

And it’s all perfectly true: given our country’s size, and the sheer wealth of its history, those are claims that Malta can easily back up. When it comes to underwater heritage, however... I won’t say it’s ‘just as rich’, as the rest of our heritage; but it’s very, VERY rich; and – even more importantly – it is VERY representative, of all the diverse periods of Maltese history.

Bear in mind that Malta has always depended on maritime traffic, throughout all the thousands of years it has been inhabited. And what remains, of all the shipping that must have sunk in Malta’s waters, in all that time – the cargo of trading vessels, from Phoenician, Roman, or Medieval periods; the remains of ships wrecked in storms, or during wars – these deposits tell us just as much, about our collective history, as anything you’ll find on land.

But because, in the past, it was always ‘out of sight’; it was very much ‘out of mind’. So one of our tasks, as the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit, is to change this perception. Not by ‘competing’ with the rest of Malta’s heritage, naturally; if anything, the idea is to complement our understanding of that heritage, by restoring its lost ‘maritime’ component.

From what I’ve already seen in that 360-degree video: the way to do that is by supplying visitors with head-sets, so that they can experience Malta’s underwater heritage first-hand...

That’s one of the ways, yes. But not the only one. Another way is through the ‘virtual museum’, which we launched three years ago. It’s an interactive site – accessible through underwatermalta.org – through which anyone, anywhere in the world, can experience free, virtual exploration of close to 20 underwater sites, around Malta and Gozo.

But to be honest, ‘how we take the site to the people’ is a question we have to keep asking ourselves, over and over again: because the pace of technology is advancing so fast, that – for all know – by next week, there may be other, better ways of achieving the same objective; or the technology we are already using, could be taken to a whole new level...

For now, however, the experience [of using a 360-degree virtual-reality headset] will be similar to what you’ve just seen... only they will first be given be a 10-minute presentation, to explain what Malta’s underwater heritage consists of; and then shown at least three sites, using the same headsets.

And this is something we’re already doing. We have an outreach programme – accessible through the Heritage Malta website – whereby we organise visits for anyone who will book us. It’s free of charge for all schools; and other associations as well. Recently, for instance, we gave a presentation to the Society for the Deaf. There's no limit, really. The only limit, right now, is the number of headsets.

With the virtual museum, on the other hand: the only limit is your Internet connectivity. So in a sense, it’s a case ‘reverse-engineering’: from a situation where the sites themselves were physically inaccessible, to all but a handful of people around the world... now, they’re accessible to anyone, anywhere, with an Internet connection; and even the most basic set of Internet skills.

On the subjects of ‘limits’: the exercise doesn’t seem to be restricted to ‘archaeology’, either. I was just as flabbergasted by the sheer abundance of marine life – fish, starfish, crabs, lobsters, and all sorts of other things I can’t even name – as I was by the wreck itself. Am I right in guessing that this project also has a ‘conservation’ angle to it? That ‘underwater heritage’, also means ‘natural heritage’, up to a certain extent?

Well, those two things are never very far apart. In fact, you could almost say they’re inseparable... on two counts.

One, because when something as ‘alien’, to the marine world, as a man-made ship, sinks to the bottom of the sea... there could be environmental consequences. So much so, that when a ship is scuttled, in Maltese waters, to form an artificial reef – as happened in the case of MV Hephaestus, last year – it has to go through a highly regulated cleaning process: adhering to standards that are set by the EU, and implemented by the ERA. It is a complicated process; and it’s also very expensive, by the way... which explains why it doesn’t actually happen, more often.

But those are vessels that were deliberately scuttled, under strictly regulated conditions. It doesn’t count for, say, a ship that was struck by a torpedo in World War II... in which case, the captain would hardly be able to turn to the crew, and asked them to ‘strip all the chemical paint from the hull’, before the ship went down...

No: those ships sank to the bottom, with whatever they were carrying – which, in the case of more recent vessels, could include fuel; toxic chemicals, etc. – still on board. So up to a point, wrecks do have an impact on the marine environment.

But it works both ways... and on balance, we can safely say that wrecks are also highly beneficial to the environment; in that they create the ideal conditions for underwater life to flourish.

We see this time and again: and what we have found with the deeper wrecks, in particular, is that... if they’re over 50-55 metres deep, they will be simply bursting – but BURSTING – with life: especially now, that we have stopped bottom-fishing, bunkering, and anchoring from taking place, in a wide buffer-zone around all the sites.

What we haven't quite understood yet, however, is the precise ‘synergy’ between the natural world, and the cultural heritage deposited within it. Definitely, we can say that cultural heritage is very good for natural heritage; because we see massive concentrations of species that are normally very rare in Maltese waters – like black coral, for example - but which absolutely flourish, on some of the Heritage Malta sites.

But what we are trying to work towards – and what we need a better understanding of - is whether this flourishing of the natural world, ‘benefits the shipwreck, itself’. In a nutshell, we need to understand how this synergy, between the natural and the man-made, actually works in practice.

The crucial thing, however, is that we are aware that this relationship exists; and that it needs to be studied further. And this is what we are trying to do...

Lastly, there is a very obvious, self-evident ‘educational’ dimension to all this.  You’ve already mentioned school-visits, for instance. Out of curiosity: how do children react, to their own experiences of ‘virtual diving’ on these sites?

One of the things that consistently amazes me, whenever we show these videos to children in schools, is.... the sort of questions they ask. Instead of the way it used to be, in the past – when the ‘experts’ stood on a pedestal, and simply imparted their knowledge to students below – suddenly, it’s as though the tables have turned. Now, with this 360 ‘full immersion’, the kids have the opportunity to go off exploring for themselves. And they start asking US the questions... which could be about anywhere up to eight or nine different subjects.

They ask about history, naturally; but they also ask about biology - because they saw a particular type of starfish; or were fascinated by a type of sponge – they ask about pollution; they ask about the effects of climate change... it really is incredibly multi-faceted.

And this was, in fact, one of the main objectives of the outreach programme, in the first place. Actually, there were two: one is to make children (and people in general) ‘fall in love with the ocean’; and the other is to ‘unlock their imagination’... because it's important for these kids –  aged 10 or 11 years old - to break away from the standard models of education. For instance: why study English? Is it only to ‘become a teacher’, or ‘to become a writer’?

Now: there is obviously nothing wrong with becoming a ‘teacher’, or a ‘writer’... but what we’re hoping to achieve, through these programmes, is to illustrate that there are different ways those skills could be applied. Over and above their chosen careers... some of those children might be inspired to write scripts for documentaries, for instance; or to start up their own blog about the ocean, or climate change, or whatever else interests them...

That, too, is another way of ‘taking the site to the people’. Because at the end of the day: the same children we are reaching out to today, will – in 10, 15 years’ time – be the ‘policy-makers’, and ‘decision-takers’, of tomorrow.

The Virtual Museum is supported by the Malta Tourism Authority. The newly Xlendi Park is sponsored by the Malta Airport Foundation. Ongoing research on the Phoenician shipwreck is thanks to the Ministry for Gozo.