It is time to take a tour around the museum. I am buying a ticket and going towards the entrance. I am placing oxygen bottles and other equipment on my shoulder and jumping into the boat. Only half an hour more of sailing and I shall be examining the blue gallery. For decades Danijel Frka from Kraljevica, a fan of diving and underwater photography has been promoting such a vision of underwater sightseeing of archaeological and historical heritage. The recently founded International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar is one step closer to the realisation of his dream.
"It all began with Apoxiomen, a 1900 year-old bronze statue of an athlete found in 1996, in the sea south-east of the island of Losinj, near the small islet of Vele Orijule at the depth of 45 metres“ - says Luka Bekic, the director of the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar. "The public experts, the competent Ministry of Culture and all lovers of culture and the arts were extremely excited by this valuable discovery. An idea of a more efficient protection and research of Croatian treasures under the water surface, came to light “ - continues Bekic.
The home of underwater archaeology
It took a long time to turn the idea into reality, but, finally, in August 2007 the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology was founded and its value was recognised by UNESCO that pronounced it a Category 2 Centre. Conservation-restoration workshop, laboratory, dormitory, lecture classrooms, offices and other accompanying facilities within the Centre enable the scientists to conduct high-quality work on the protection of the historical underwater heritage. We say underwater and not undersea, because in the Centre they take care also of sites in Croatian rivers and lakes.
Since long, diving has become accessible to almost everyone and one can find remains of anchorages, quays and ports, summer villas or even traces of past settlements at shallow depths. Most of the coastal finding places originate from the ancient or Roman period.
"Almost 80 percent of divers that I meet wish to tour the undersea sites of historical and archaeological heritage“– Danijel Frka explains the importance of managing the inherited treasure.
Numerous finding places
There are valuable underwater archaeological sites all over the Adriatic. In the Bay of Kastel in shallow waters ancient constructions were found. They were made of wood, sometimes in combination with recycled amphoras or even with a deliberately sunk ship. The cove of Sv.Juraj, known as the port of Vis is another example of a well preserved, but in terms of tourism, unexploited heritage. In the cove of Stonac, parts of large ceramic pots were preserved. These pots could hold 1,000 litres and in ancient times they were used for storing agricultural and sea products. This is a unique case, because these perforated ceramic pots were preserved in their original location (in situ). Often, remains of deliberately sunk ships can be found. Such ships were used to prevent enemies, approaching from the sea, to enter ports. Two such ships were extracted from the sea in 1974 in front of Nin, and later on it was proved that the ships originated from the 11th century and that they were sunk during the Norman attack of the Croatian coastline in 1074.
Museum in a cage
Unfortunately, tourism and the development of sport diving with sponge and coral diving have caused irrecoverable damages. The cargo of numerous sunken ships has gone forever or has been damaged and it is known that many ended up in private collections. Amphoras have become a symbol of undersea archaeological heritage, but also of its devastation. Still, Croatian scientists have found a solution for this plundering.
Since 2004, important archaeological sites have been protected with cages which is a unique way of protection in the world. One can access them only through a special opening. In Croatia there are nine sites that are protected in this manner and they carry the name of "underwater museums“. The diving clubs that were given a concession by the Ministry of Culture now have the exclusive right to take tourists to these "museums“. One such site is located in the vicinity of the small islet Supetar near Cavtat. Here is a ship with a cargo of amphoras from the 3rd -4th century AD. Her length is about 30 metres, and she carried several thousand amphoras. In the Cavtat region several other remains of ships were found, so one could say that this region is the first undersea archaeological park in Croatia. The remaining cages are located in the areas around the island of Mljet (Klacina), island Zirje (cove Koromasna), island Pag (cove Vlaska mala and cape Sorinj) and near Umag. The solution with the cages that turn an underwater site into a museum, but also ensure it against plundering, aroused great interest and approval in the world. Such a solution represents an excellent potential for the development of diving and cultural tourism.
Rivers also hide their secrets
Underwater archaeological heritage is not only found in the undersea areas, but also in rivers and lakes which are in abundance in Croatia. Rivers hide many valuable items that have been falling into the water on significant crossings or were sacrificed to water divinities. The river basins hide remains of settlements, quays, shipwrecks and old bridges. A presentation below the surface is impossible due to the strong river currents and the turbid water. Still, it is possible to believe that a well told story and a reconstruction of ships that once used to sail in our rivers will, in special museum exhibitions conjure up for the tourists how people lived along the water and enrich the tourist offer of continental Croatia.
Around 30,000 foreign divers come to Croatia every summer. There are many reasons for their love of the Adriatic. In the Croatian undersea, numerous discovered and protected archaeological sites are waiting for them, but there are also about 1,500 unexplored caves and pits, as well as ships and planes from previous wars, whose position is only vaguely known, but the wreckages have not been discovered yet. Challenges for an attractive and active vacation on the Adriatic are plentiful.
During September, the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology will host an eminent meeting of world scientists who are engaged in research and the protection of archaeological and historical underwater heritage. This meeting will be one more contribution to the promotion of underwater archaeology, the Croatian diving tourism and the Croatian way of protecting underwater archaeological sites – in situ.