Act now … or history is sunk

A maritime archeologist has warned that many valuable wrecks may be lost if they are not recorded soon.

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SHARJAH // It'snow or never for the remarkable archaeological treasures on the Gulf bed … but an expert says few people seem to care.

The Gulf region has been at the heart of key trading routes for thousands of years and shipwrecks from many eras, along with other valuable remains, are believed to be buried in the seabed.

Dr Lucy Blue, a maritime archaeologist from the UK's University of Southampton, warns this irreplaceable evidence of how early seafarers and communities lived is being threatened with destruction by indifference and development.

For the past two weeks, Dr Blue has been working on projects at coastal sites in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

Maritime archaeology is well established in other parts of the world. Spectacular successes such as the salvaging of King Henry VIII's flagship the Mary Rose off the south coast of England in 1982 have caught the public's imagination.

But so far there has been little interest in the Gulf.

"My concern is that if we don't start doing it soon here there isn't going to be much left because of the rapid nature of coastal development," says Dr Blue.

"This is why we need to find a Mary Rose here, or a submerged settlement - something to get that mindset shifted."

Dr Blue is not opposed to development and believes scientists and civil engineers should work together.

"For example, the material they have from taking core samples and any investigations of the seabed in advance of building a marina or laying a pipeline is probably extensive, and we can use that data," she says.

Some of the material that lies under the Gulf could be the remains of houses, as much of the area now covered by water was once dry land.

Dr Blue believes that as the sea expanded, families living along the shore retreated to higher ground, leaving behind their homes and other remnants.

"It's a new area of research, looking beneath the seabed for submerged landscapes, but the remains should be there," she says. "It's a bit needle and haystack, though - it's a big sea.

"But if we start understanding a little bit more about where the shoreline was at certain points in the past then we can start narrowing down our search."

Dr Blue is the director of the Maritime Archaeology Stewardship Trust, which operates across the Arab world.

The organisation has just completed research projects at Delma Island in Abu Dhabi and Al Khan, Sharjah, in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and Sharjah's Directorate of Heritage.

She believes such studies can help people whose ancestors were seafarers to better understand their culture and heritage.

"Maritime history is critical to understanding where you came from," Dr Blue says. "It's important for people to have a sense of where they're coming from and the nature of the world in which they live by reflecting on things that happened in the past.

"The sea is critical to that, particularly in this part of the world because of the history of pearling and trade. They're just trading different things now, oil instead of copper or pearls.

"A lot of the reason we have this cosmopolitan existence here, with people from all over the world, is because of the sea and the connections, not just now but very much in the past."

During her visit to the UAE, Dr Blue shared her views with students at the American University of Sharjah.

Her comments were supported by Michael Creamer, an Abu Dhabi-based marine consultant, who says: "What she's saying is all true and it's necessary because there's so little evidence left of the cultures that have grown and died here.

"We need to not only preserve what we can obviously see, but do the hunting for the things we can't see."