Plans by the energy giant BP to sink an oil well off the Libyan coast could have disastrous consequences for the region's rich heritage of coastal ancient city sites and shipwrecks – already under threat from oil tankers, coastal erosion and tourist developments – archaeologists from around the world have warned.
The energy company has been under increased scrutiny following the leak from its well in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year which spewed oil for three months in the world's worst maritime spill.
Last week a report into the blowout from BP blamed a "complex and interlinked" series of events, including human errors and mechanical failures, for the explosion that killed 11 engineers and led to the spill.
BP has, however, announced that it intends to go ahead with plans to sink a well – which would be 200m deeper than the one in the Gulf of Mexico – around 125 miles off the coast of Libya. Work is due to begin before the end of the year.
Archaeologists fear that an oil spill in the region could destroy the area's numerous ancient coastal and underwater sites and that thousands of historic shipwrecks could be at additional risk from drilling activity.
These include the ancient harbour town of Apollonia, in Cyrenaica – which dates from the 7th century BC and is five metres below sea level – along with two ancient cities in the region of Tripolitania, both of which are World Heritage Sites.
Claude Sintes, the director of the Museum of Ancient Arles in the south of France and director of the sub-aquatic team of the French archaeological mission to Libya, said that the sites are either on the beaches or underwater close to the shore. Washed-up oil would soak the porous stone and be impossible to clean, he added.
"They are very important sites and they are very fragile," he said. "If there is a problem with oil, like in the US, and it washes on to the shore it's going to be very difficult to clean the remains because the stones are porous. Apollonia is five metres under the water, and is complete with streets and buildings. In Tripolitania there are two important sites, Leptis Magna, a former Roman city, and Sabratha, where there is a theatre and mosaics. Some remains are on the beach and, if there was a leak, oil could wash up and certainly cause problems."
Paul Bennett, head of mission for the Society of Libyan Studies, which oversees British archaeological expeditions to the country, agreed that an oil spill would be disastrous for the coastal sites.
He added, however, that the area contains tens of thousands of wrecks from the Roman period, and that an opportunity to map the seabed using data collected by BP and other oil companies is being lost – along with the opportunity to ensure the wrecks aren't damaged by seismic surveying or drilling.
"If there was the kind of impact assessment you'd expect in European countries, we could see where these wrecks were," he said. "We should be taking advantage of the data collected to map the seabed. There must be tens of thousands of wrecks off the Libyan coast. We'd then be in a position to advise, to ensure they weren't damaged."
Steven Anthony, President of the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society in Washington DC, added that the wrecks – described as "time capsules" – could also be at risk from a potential spill.
"There needs to be more research of what happens to spilled oil before drilling begins," he said. "The oil industry and BP say that leaked oil floats. But in the Gulf of Mexico oil was observed in great clouds near the bottom of the sea.
"It has happened before and will happen again, sooner or later. There isn't enough information on what happens to the oil after it leaks, or how to remedy it. When the spill in the Gulf happened, it created a lot of discussion between archaeologists about the potential problems. The oil industry needs to invest more."
Dr Nic Flemming, a British archaeologist who first mapped Apollonia as a student in 1958, said, however, that the possibility of an oil spill ranked low among his concerns regarding dangers to ancient sites.
"It's a problem, but I would say it's 17th of a host of problems," he said. "Tankers already pump out bilge; there are already oil platforms; and ancient sites are being bulldozed because their coastal locations are so valuable. Countries sign up to protection treaties, but if somebody comes along with a lot of money and says 'I want to build a hotel that will create so many jobs', then the treaties are forgotten.
"I'm horrified by the changes over the past 30 years," he added. "I remember watching a town being bulldozed into the sea, complete with columns and mosaics, to make way for a new holiday resort. I hardly dare go to look at a site any more."
A BP spokesman said drilling will start later this year, adding that any leaked oil would float and that a full seismic survey had been carried out. He said plans for Libya had been reviewed in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico leak.