Roman amphoras discovered in a Spanish seafood shop

Posted on: August 4, 2020 by

Images courtesy of website of Guardia Civil

An intriguing case involving underwater cultural heritage was brought to light by the Spanish media towards the end of July. In the city of Alicante, a father and son, owners of a frozen seafood shop, were found to be in possession of 13 Roman amphoras, possibly dating from the 1st  Century AD, together with an 18th Century metal anchor and a limestone plaque bearing the inscription ‘este’ (meaning ‘east’ in Spanish). These objects, apparently discovered during the pair’s afternoon fishing trips, were unexpectedly found during a routine inspection of the premises conducted by SEPRONA (the section of the Guardia Civil in charge of the fight against the looting of archaeological sites, among other functions). Based on the different ages of the artefacts, it seems likely that they came from different sites. The pieces have been seized and temporarily placed in a museum for study, whilst the aforementioned individuals are being investigated.

The story raises many questions, such as how long ago the artefacts were recovered from the sea, where they were initially found or if there are more pieces yet to be discovered. Furthermore, there are  legal issues to be addressed in determining the fate that the two men might face, as well as more broadly, about the protection of underwater cultural heritage in Spain, as was discussed in another recent post on this blog.

Images courtesy of website of Guardia Civil

Spain was one of the first countries to ratify the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, doing so in 2005. Since then, the country has embraced its main principles, adopting, for instance, the National Plan for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage in 2007. No new law for the protection specifically of underwater heritage was passed but it is protected by the wider-reaching Spanish Historical Heritage Law (SHHL) as well as the different regional laws. Both the national and the Valencian Community law (the regional law governing the province of Alicante) protect underwater cultural heritage (as archaeological heritage), regulating both authorised excavations and unexpected discoveries.

In accordance with the Spanish Historical Heritage Law, all archaeological heritage is considered to fall within the public domain so the finder will never have ownership over his or her discoveries (art. 44 SHHL). On a regional level, the Valencian Cultural Heritage Law establishes that chance discoveries of cultural heritage must be reported to the ‘Conselleria de Cultura, Educación y Ciencia’ within 48 hours, with a right of reward for the finder (half the value of the object). Failure to fulfil the reporting obligation not only extinguishes the finder’s right to the reward, it also triggers the right for the authorities to immediately seize the goods and impose sanctions.

This appears to be what happened in this case. Instead of reporting the discoveries to the authorities (as happened in the other recent case reported earlier on this blog), the men decided to keep the objects in their shop (though their intention in doing so is unclear). Neither is it known whether they realised the value of their discoveries, or that they had an obligation to report them. In any case, these unfortunate actions could potentially result in significant penalties which could include a jail sentence.

The press release issued by the Guardia Civil states that father and son are being investigated for one offence against historic heritage and another related offence against heritage and ‘socio-economic order’ (offences for which there is no direct equivalent under English law).Without further details of the offences (which are not currently public knowledge whilst the investigation is in progress) it is difficult to know exactly what the likely charges will be. It is interesting to note, however, that those offences which seem most relevant, based on the reports, carry sentences of up to 3 years imprisonment in one case (for an offence relating to the looting of underwater archaeological sites – Art. 323.1 Ley Orgánica 10/1995 del Código Penal) and up to 6 years (for an offence of acquisition or possession of assets knowing they originate from criminal activity – Art. 301 Ley Orgánica 10/1995 del Código Penal).

It is not so much the lack of adequate protection for underwater cultural heritage, nor the suitability of the punishments for crimes against it, which concerns me most about this case. Rather it is the lack of civic awareness about underwater cultural heritage, which drives individuals to take possession of cultural goods with no thought or understanding of their origins, ownership, or perhaps even their cultural value. The unlawful removal of underwater cultural property is highly harmful to history and heritage. Without proper, authorised scientific explorations, much information that the artefacts can reveal is lost.

The Mediterranean Spanish coast is teeming with underwater archaeological sites due to the prolific trading activities conducted there since ancient times. The two Phoenician shipwrecks found in Mazarrón (Murcia), dating from the 7th Century BC and believed to represent among the oldest vessels ever found in the Mediterranean, provide a notable example. It is reported that up to 133  sites with archaeological remains have been registered by the Centre for Underwater Archaeology of Valencia along the coasts of Alicante alone. With this rich heritage, the resources available to investigate and understand underwater heritage in Spain perhaps do not stretch far enough. Civic co-operation is therefore essential: fishermen and amateur divers could be very valuable allies to better understand and to protect Spain’s heritage. However, to get their co-operation, effective awareness-raising programmes are required.

This may well be the biggest challenge to improve the country’s protection of underwater cultural heritage. The wide media attention given to Spain’s legal victory in the US courts and the subsequent recovery of the “Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes” shipwreck represented an important turning point in raising awareness generally. In this case, after a long legal battle, the Spanish government recovered more than 8,000 coins from US treasure hunter, Odyssey Marine Exploration, which had discovered the shipwreck in Spain’s Atlantic coast. This case set a precedent in the international fight against the plunder of underwater cultural heritage, and news of it was widely disseminated through various temporary exhibitions in Spain. However, there is still a long way to go in enhancing understanding of these issues. Only when this is achieved can we expect to see a better level of protection for underwater cultural heritage and fewer stories about misunderstandings and mis-steps by citizens unaware of the regulations surrounding objects they might discover whilst fishing or going about their daily business.

Spanish-speaking readers might be interested to watch this brief video clip about the case.

Images sourced from the website of the Spanish Guardia Civil, accessed on 30 July 2020 and available here.