The Bay of Gibraltar / Algeciras is in a uniquely privileged place, boasting an “expanse of deep and safe waters located in a strategic naval crossroads” which has experienced the intense development in maritime and commercial terms throughout its history. As a result, over 400 shipwrecks have been registered in the area, and there are continuing and exciting projects exploring one of the Iberian Peninsula’s richest archaeological sites.
A small fraction of the artefacts found during various diving expeditions which have been carried out in the Bay were meant to have been put on display at the Municipal Museum of Algeciras during the final months of 2020, but this has now been postponed until 2021 on account of Covid-19 restrictions. In any event, agreement has been reached so that these artefacts and other finds should be kept at the museum for continuing conservation and dissemination.
“One of our main objectives is to promote these findings; to ensure that the public is aware of the scope and significance of these underwater sites, because what is not known cannot be understood or protected” Raúl González Gallero said during an online conference this November. The conference was conducted by the La Línea Menéndez Pelayo International University (UIMP), under the title “Underwater Archaeology in the Surroundings of the Bay of Algeciras”.
During the online conference, González Gallero gave a virtual tour through the five different stages of these excavations, from the initial rudimentary ones that began in the 60’s and 70’s, to present day which are now being conducted by the University of Cadiz’s “Masters of Nautical and Underwater Archaeology” students and teachers. The degree is intended to train up new generations of professionals, but also to open up certain sites to the public in conjunction with various diving clubs.
Gallero made it clear from the outset that “our level of scientific knowledge and documentation of the Underwater Archaeological Heritage within these waters remain relatively low considering the historical importance that the sea and other nautical events have had on our environment.” Therefore, the University of Cádiz has been carrying out various projects aimed at bridging the gap in our knowledge of the Bay, and they have found “interesting results”. The Masters of Nautical and Underwater Archaeology currently revolves around two underwater sites: Timoncillo (5th Century BC) and the La Ballenera (16-17th Centuries).
González Gallero highlighted the future projects entitled “Tide” and “Herakles” (both of which are funded by the EU), and a new initiative: to organise Underwater Archaeological Routes within Algecrias and Tarifa alongside the Parque Natural del Estrecho and the Fundación Campus Tecnológico. In relation to the preliminary zoning of the Bay, the first campaign which was carried out in 2020 has already yielded positive results through the successful documentation of several shipwrecks such as the “Rinconcillo V”.
On the subject of protecting these shipwreck sites, the UIMP speaker opted for diving centres to come to agreements to solidify the fact that they are “the ones in charge of protecting the treasures still hidden in the depths of the Bay”.
Responding to questions on the issue of divers from those who attended the online conference, González Gallero considers that “if your average diver happens to destroy something, it will normally be down to ignorance rather than an intention to plunder a site”, but acknowledged that “of course, there have been some instances of plundering, and there may still be some that should be looked into.”
Among the most notorious recent and regrettable instances was that of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, whose treasure was seized in 2007 by the American Odyssey company and kept for 5 years, until the United States Supreme Court ordered its return to Spain.
Archaeologists Commit to Protecting Sunken Heritage
As well as being a specialist in Underwater Archaeology, Raúl González Gallero is a delegate for the Cultural Heritage of the Andalusian Federation of Underwater Activities (FEDAS-CMAS), and a professor for the Masters of Nautical and Underwater Archaeology at the University of Cádiz (UCA).
He has also been a director and technician in numerous underwater archaeological interventions along the coast.
During his dissertation at the recent UIMP conference, González Gallero recalled that it was a local driver, Juan Antonia Matas Serrano, who, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, was the first to begin studying the seabed of the Bay. He located various deposits and amphora, such as Los Golones, Punta del Rodeo and El Tambor shipwrecks among others.
However, it was a decade later, into the 80’s, when a group of friends led by Félix Rodríguiez Lloret and Antonio Sequera, finally made an archaeological map of the area.
Aside from a few timid attempts in recent times, the protection of the area had not been given sufficient consideration until 2004, when a Congress was held in the Commonwealth of Municipalities of the Campo de Gibraltar. There, archaeologists sounded the alarm on the consequences of not protecting the sunken heritage that lies in the Bay.
“One conclusion was that there had been an irreparable loss of a large part of that heritage due to the works on the port of Algeciras and uncoordinated archaeological controls,” the speaker commented.
According to González Gallero, the next milestone was reached in 2008 when the Junta de Andalucía decreed the protection of 55 underwater archaeological sites with the highest existing forms of protection: Naming it a “BIC” (“Asset of Cultural Interest”) which included sites such as the Punta Carnero and La Ballenera (both in Algeciras) as well as the Arroyo de los Patos in Guadarranque.
In 2009, 42 locations in Andalucía were labelled “areas of aqueological easement”, and four of them were established in the region: The Ensenada de Bolonia, the Island of Tarifa, the Borondo River and, of course, the Bay.
As explained by González Gallero, the novelty of this new system of protection for underwater spaces lies in the fact that “although artifacts of interest have not yet been documented, there is a well-founded presumption of their existence, either in a properly documented historical sources or other studies making reference to them”.
He told us that, regrettably, pieces of heritage were still being damaged and “it was urgent to commence scientific research projects in collaboration with the university, the Administrations and other social agents, as well as to begin drawing up an Underwater Archaeological Chart”. As was made clear at the UIMP conference, and subsequent discussions, these projects are already bearing fruit.