Tunisia explores its rich underwater heritage

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Divers explore the wreck of a French submarine off Cape Bon, Tunisia, in October 2020.

“I always get goosebumps when I discover an object underwater, because I know that it has not moved for centuries”, is moved Slim Medimegh. This professional diver is also the technical director of the first underwater archaeological expedition conducted off the island of Pilau, in northern Tunisia, in early October.

As part of a mission undertaken by the Heritage and Cultural Promotion Agency (AMVPPC), a team brought to the surface a dozen objects from underwater sites, remains of capsized ships in through the centuries. “Many boats came near the island for shelter from the storms. Others, which were shipwrecked, shed their cargo by throwing part of it overboard, explique Slim Medimegh. Most of the archaeological pieces found are still intact, but they are very fragile and complicated to extract because of substrates such as mud and posidonia. “

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These finds buried between 18 and 30 meters deep (Punic, Italian, African amphorae, anchors, fittings, lead ingots, etc.) will allow an unprecedented re-reading of the history of maritime trade in Tunisia, according to Ouafa. Slimane, underwater archaeologist at the National Heritage Institute (INP) and scientific director of the project. “In 2015-2016, the geophysical prospecting of the site had enabled us to establish a cartography and a first inventory of the pieces present, thanks to a project with the Italian cooperation, traces the researcher. Then, in January, a ministerial decree made it possible to classify the periphery of the island as a protected area. “

This research is encouraged by Unesco, which in June celebrated the 20th anniversary of the vote on a convention governing underwater archeology. “The waters are the largest museum in the world”, then declared its director general, Audrey Azoulay, on an official visit to Tunis, calling on the international community to mobilize to explore and protect these submerged remains.

From antiquity to contemporary times

Tunisia is already prized by archaeologists for the richness and diversity of its terrestrial heritage. Nearly 3,000 years of history with Roman, Punic, Berber, Turkish and Andalusian influences have shaped the geography of a country which has nearly 30,000 sites, of which only sixty are exploited.

But Tunisian waters remain virgin spaces for explorers, “Partly for lack of human resources and because of limited logistical resources”, according to Ouafa Slimane. Underwater research is also subject to a battery of authorizations and often supervised by military navy divers, a long logistical and administrative process which explains the rarity of expeditions.

The 1,300 kilometers of coastline nevertheless suggest the presence of many riches under the water, with relics ranging from antiquity to contemporary times, as evidenced by the discovery of a wreck of a French submarine dating from the World War I off Cape Bon, in 2020.

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The first underwater excavations in the country were undertaken by sponge fishermen in the early 20th century.e century off the coastal town of Mahdia. Then they became more professional with the appearance of the first autonomous divers and the modernization of scuba diving by Commander Cousteau. Today, some of the recovered pieces are exhibited at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

But many sites remain unprotected, alert Slim Medimegh, who warns against the risk of looting, already frequent where the sea is shallow: “There is always this myth, in Tunisia, that the archaeological discovery is necessarily linked to money or to treasures, and this attracts a lot of gold diggers. “

Creation of a virtual reality game

Today, the country does not have the financial and technological means to conserve the objects resulting from the deep excavations, which has prompted the Pilau Island mission to adopt an innovative approach. In addition to the few remains brought to the surface for research purposes, “We promote in situ conservation, the idea being to protect the site but also to develop underwater tourism around it, without needing to extract more objects”, dit Ouafa Slimane.

The purpose of the project also lies in the promotion of discoveries by a Tunisian start-up, 3DWave, specializing in augmented reality technologies. According to Ferid Kamel, its founder, this first expedition will allow the creation of a virtual reality game around the underwater heritage: the artefacts found underwater will be scanned and then modeled in order to be able to be visualized in 3D. The whole will be accompanied by animations and a scenario enriched by the historical indications which will result from the scientific treatment of the collected pieces. “The idea is to attract young people to this heritage by using digital tools”, explains Ferid Kamel, whose team is already hard at work.

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For the AMVPPC, the digital enhancement of other archaeological sites should make it possible to reconcile Tunisians with heritage, while “Each year the numbers of visits to cultural sites remain below our expectations”, specifies the director of the agency, Amel Zribi Hachana. In 2019, only 1.5 million people visited Tunisian monuments and museums.

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Tunisia explores its rich underwater heritage