The Sunken Archaeology of Malta and the Virtual Museum ‘Underwater Malta’

August 2021

The underwater heritage around Malta is one of the richest collections of maritime archaeology in the world. The quality of preservation is outstanding as well as the number of sites, and yet they are inaccessible to so many of us. Not only do you need to be able to dive to see these sites, but for most of them you need to be able to dive very, very deep and that is only possible for a tiny fraction with the requisite skill, experience, knowledge, equipment, support…and lets not forget courage.

One man has decided that this is not acceptable. Professor Timmy Gambin from the University of Malta has realised his vision for making this deep underwater heritage accessible by creating a virtual underwater museum: ‘The Virtual Museum – Underwater Malta’ at www.underwatermalta.org This online platform created by an international team of divers, photographers, archaeologists and computer programmers, brings Malta’s underwater cultural heritage to the surface and into the homes of the general public. Using 3D, virtual reality and other media, the aim of this website is to provide access to and share Malta’s unique underwater cultural heritage with all members of the public.

Dr Sam Willis and Timmy Gambin discuss a number of the sites that have been re-created online with extraordinary 3D photography including a Blenheim Bomber, a German Junkers 88, an X-Lighter; a collection of victorian guns, a German schnellboot and a Phoenician shipwreck.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. This week we have a real treat for you, particularly those of you interested in underwater heritage; the remains of human creation that lies on the seabed and makes a new life amongst the fish and the weed and the sea sponges. Now there are a few places finer on earth to explore this type of maritime history and archaeology than the island of Malta. I’ve really enjoyed putting this episode together because on several occasions as a child, I visited Malta with my mum, dad and sister. And now I look back on it, I wonder if that was a key moment in my life when my love for history and the sea first came together. For the sea, well, I’m not sure there’s anything quite like it in Malta, jumping in off warm rocks into deep clear water. And the history of the island is completely astonishing; Malta lies in the Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, which has made it a stepping stone for empires as they strode in giant leaps across the Mediterranean. It was important for the Romans, the Moor’s the Knights of St. John, the French, and then the British – and that’s just its recent history. Evidence of pre-history in Malta goes back at least six thousand years.

    For an eight-year-old boy such as I was it was the eye-catching castle of Valletta which I think absorbed my attention and the story of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when the entire might of the Ottoman Empire fell on this tiny island, then held by the Knights Hospitaller, whose headquarters had moved from Jerusalem, after the First Crusade to Rhodes and thence to Malta. The siege in Malta was the climax of a ferocious struggle for control of the Mediterranean between the military forces of Christianity and Islam, and the tiny force of knights there, and its foot soldiers managed to hold off the masses of the Ottoman army. As maritime-based sieges go it was one of the most extraordinary in history. And do you know what, I think we should dedicate at least to some future episodes to Malta’s siege and to similar maritime sieges.

    Anyway, what’s interesting about Malta is that unless you know where to look, your eye is caught by the great battlements of the fortresses and the spires of the churches, the curious windows and balconies offering differing styles of architecture that was left behind as different civilizations settled and then moved on. There’s so much to see for the land-based explorer. But what you’re missing out on is astonishing. And it’s all underwater. The collections of underwater heritage around Malta quite simply has to be one of the richest collections in the world, and the quality of preservation is also astounding, as well as the number of sites. And yet they are all inaccessible to so many of us. Not only do you need to be able to dive to see these, but you need to be able to dive very, very deep. And that’s only possible for a tiny fraction of the world’s population. You’ll have the requisite skill, experience and knowledge, equipment supports and let’s not forget courage, they really are quite dangerously deep some of these sites. One man has decided that this is not acceptable. He is called Timmy Gambin, and his vision for making this deep underwater heritage accessible has now been realized in a virtual underwater museum. You can find it @underwatermalta.org – that’s underwatermalta.org and it’s called ‘The Virtual Museum – Underwater Malta. This online platform brings underwater cultural heritage to the surface – into the homes of the general public. Using 3d virtual reality and other media, the aim of the website is to provide access to and share Malta’s unique underwater cultural heritage with all members of the public. Timmy Gambin is an associate professor in maritime archaeology at the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta. He graduated in history from this university and went on to attain his master’s in maritime archaeology and history from the University of Bristol, which incidentally is where I got my master’s in maritime archaeology from. He also has a doctorate in maritime archaeology. Professor Gambin has been involved in numerous collaborative research projects around the world and has also co-directed numerous offshore underwater surveys in various parts of the Mediterranean. I think Timmy is an inspirational man. I hope you enjoy listening to his energy and fizzing ideas as much as I did. So here is Timmy and his fabulous underwater museum.

    Timmy, thanks so much for speaking with me today.

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Sam, it’s my pleasure.

    Sam Willis

    Now Timmy, I absolutely love Malta. I’ve got very fond memories of going there as a kid on my holidays. I was going to say, can you tell me about Malta’s maritime history, but that’s a bit of a challenge, isn’t it? There’s so much of it. Let me put it a different way. Have you got a favourite bit of Malta’s maritime history?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Well, it’s, I think it’s as much of a challenge as the first question. It’s a bit like asking me, you know who my favourite child is. And I’m a big fan of all periods of our maritime history. I mean, if we just take the British side, you know, to think that Nelson sailed into our harbours, the British had their Mediterranean Fleet based here. So, there’s a real connection, which is still very much alive to this day, between the Royal Navy and Britain on one side and Malta and the Maltese on the other

    Sam Willis

    I mean, if you just sort of think about the breadth of it, just for our listeners out there who may not know it, but there’s Phoenician history, you’ve got a history of Carthage, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arab rule from the mid-19th century, there was the Norman Conquest (rather like Britain, you guys had a Norman Conquest), the Knights Hospitaller for two and a half centuries, the French occupation, you know, with Napoleon in 1798, and then, of course, the World Wars. I suppose out of all of that, my favourite thing must be the Great Siege of Malta 1565, when you’ve got the Ottomans trying to conquer the island of Malta. I vividly remember walking around the battlements of Valletta and imagining it; I was quite into sieges and castles when I was a kid, and I ended up you know, being a professional historian looking at it. So, yes, so I think the Great Siege is one of my favourites.

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Absolutely, and one of the driving forces behind our work, looking at the maritime archaeology, of more than Gozo, is we are surrounded with this condensed history, you know, wherever you look, you mentioned Valletta, but go to any village in the countryside, and it’s got a massive church, and we, you know, filled with paintings from the Renaissance and so on. And this is all reflective of the connectivity of the island. So, I always had a burning question as to whether this history is reflected on the seabed, whether we can have the same traces or traces of the same history on the seabed because being an island just like Britain, people had to come and go until the advent of air travel by sea.

    Sam Willis

    And there’s so much of it there. We were talking about what you can see on land, the great churches and the castle at Valletta, whatever it might be, but the whole point about what you guys are doing with the virtual museum is that there’s so much also on the seabed, and it’s about getting – about providing access to people who may not be able to dive,

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Absolutely. So, we have – we did find out that our history is very much present on the seabed, as much as it is on land. And Heritage Malta, which is the National Agency for the management and conservation of heritage sites on the island, provides access to your traditional sites like the Roman Villa, the temples of the world-famous late Neolithic temple. So, my concept was, why not provide access to our underwater heritage, you can go and visit a fortress why not visit a warship? So, Heritage Malta set up the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit which provides access. So, a diver local or visiting from overseas can book via a registered dive school and they can actually pay, buy a ticket, and visit the site itself. But most of our sites are beyond the 50-meter contour line. So, that is really beyond traditional scuba depths, so the sites – although they are open, and that’s sort of you know, something we’re very proud of – however, they’re only open to a small percentage of the world’s population. So, the idea behind the museum was now what’s the next step? How can we take these sites to the general public that cannot dive beyond 50 meters? Which as we both know, is the vast majority of the world’s population.

    Sam Willis

    And so, you’ve created it. We’ll go on and talk about some of the examples in a moment. But my first question, I suppose is how did you – how did you find the site? Actually, there are two questions. One is how did you find them? But what were all of the sites that feature in your museum known to you when you began the project? Or did you discover some in the process?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    That’s a very good question. Some were known. Like the boat fighter, HMS Māori, some were known and had been dived already. Others, such as the Phoenician shipwreck, the Xlendi, that these were discovered as part of a broader project for over two decades now. Myself, and at the University of Malta, have been conducting a sonar survey off the coast of Malta and Gozo. And quite literally, Sam, you know, we take our side scan sonar out and we map the seabed. So, we’re producing an image, an archaeological map of the seabed, and if it’s there, if it’s present on the seabed, we’ll find it. So, most of the sites were discovered by us. And that to me, makes it more special, because we’re bringing sides that are hitherto unknown to the general public.

    Sam Willis

    So, what’s the process like? So, say you find a site, something appears on the side-scan sonar, and you go, “Oh, this is interesting”, what’s the next stage of kind of investigating whether, of how interesting it actually is, and if it’s going to feature in your virtual museum?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Well, there are a number of ways that we classify sites. The site scan will give us an idea of how well preserved it is. So, you know, when you end up with a sonar image of a plane, looking as though it’s just landed on the seabed, then straight away, that’s something that catches your eye. And if it’s within the drivable depths of our team, we dive down to 130 meters. So, anything down to 130 meters, we can investigate ourselves. Anything beyond that, we use a remote-operated vehicle, which is a robot with a camera-driven from the surface. So, we decide A: according to budget; B: according to sort of the level of interest, how much we can identify. Now there are some, which we deem not as exciting as others based on the sonar image. And lo and behold, you know, we’re sometimes pleasantly surprised.

    So, once we’ve decided which sites we’re going to investigate, the first dive is generally dedicated to identification. So, we dive, we identify and confirm the type of plane it is, for example, or what ship it is. There is also background research because we know what ships were lost in World War One and World War Two. So, most of them have been found, but there are still a handful out there that haven’t been found, we have an approximate idea of where these are. So, this background research is going on all the time. We confirm whether it’s one of these, then on the basis of our first recon, we go to the next phase and the next phase is starting to record the site in detail: 1, to have a scientific yardstick, we want to know what the state of that site was in 2021, for example, and then any further studies can be measured against that baseline; and 2, the same data that we capture goes into the formation of a site on the museum.

    Sam Willis

    Once you’ve decided to record how do you actually go about it – because for those of you who are listening do, please check out our Facebook site and the YouTube channel, we’ve got some truly wonderful 3D imagery of some of the sites that Timmy is talking about. How do you actually go about creating those wonderful images?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    We have a – we’ve developed a special technique to record sites in 3D. We use high-resolution photography. So, two quite powerful cameras. The secret is the lighting. At those depths, there’s hardly any lighting at all, natural light doesn’t penetrate down to 78-80-90 meters. So, we’ve got very powerful, bespoke lights. And our 3D experts swim and take a photograph every second so that there’s enough overlap. And then once, just to give you an idea in a half-hour dive these 3, – we call them the 3D fairies because they’re always flying around the site, they’re taking this imagery – in a half-hour dive, they can shoot up to four thousand photographs each. Then once we surface, we take those photographs, we process them through at least two specialized software suites. And generally, after the first dive, we’ve got an outline model. On the basis of that outline model, we can recognise where we need to go back to in order to fill in and bring the model up to a standard that for us is acceptable to put on to the museum.

    Sam Willis

    Just to give a sense of how many people are actually involved in it, so say you’ve got some people taking photographs of something the size of a World War II bomber on the seabed – how big is the team enabling you to do that? Because you’ve got support boats, how many people are on the boat, how many people are in the water?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    It’s a nice bit of recognition for the people who are sort of behind the scenes, they’re not behind the scenes for us because we see them as guardian angels. We’ve got the main dive boat, which has a skipper and two support divers. So, once we come up from let’s say, 100-meter dive – just to give your listeners a bit of background: to descend to 100 meters takes us six minutes, we’ve got approximately fourteen minutes on the site, then it takes us anything between two and two and a half hours to ascend, and we’re full of extra cylinders for safety, we’ve got all the cameras, the scubas. So, our two support divers dive down to about 24 meters and take all the gear that we don’t need. So, those are the three support members of the dive boat team. It will be probably for a bomber will be two teams of three, so there are six deep divers. And then there is the fast boat, which has a crew of one and the fast boat is there, just in case the team gets separated. So, there’s a whole safety protocol, which is you know, we go through this and the briefing the evening before, and then we repeat the briefing on the boat as we’re going up. So, for a bomber, it’s approximately 10 persons and that’s on the field, obviously, then there are a whole host of other people working in the background with regard to graphics, processing, etc.

    Sam Willis

    It’s so important. I mean, for all of you out there now hopefully who’ve just found some of these images, it’s so easy in this day of absorbing imagery so quickly to kind of forget about how they’re actually created. But let me tell you, the images from the seabed off Malta, it takes some serious doing. And it’s one of the reasons I’m so, so impressed with what you guys have managed to achieve. Let’s now have a quick chat about some of the sights. The Bristol Blenheim. So, this is – you’ve got the wreck of a British, it’s a light bomber, and by the end of 1940, you’ve got these aircraft, they’re performing anti-shipping roles, they’re bombing reconnaissance missions to support allied ground troops in North Africa, they’re all over the place, aren’t they? And you’ve found one of them.

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Yes, actually, the Blenheim Bomber is one of the popular dive sites for those on scuba gear. So, it’s been known, but it’s also a typical example, besides being an integral part of our history, of Martha’s history in World War Two, which we’ll come back to, it’s also indicative of what a short time Sam we have with these wrecks. In particular, aircraft and seawater do not go well together. Aircraft were made from a lot of experimental alloys and once they once they come into contact with seawater, they sort of start eroding. Then they reach a sweet spot where they kind of stabilize. But we’re beginning to notice especially in shallower waters where you have a combination of biological factors, things like light as well as the warmth, maybe even climate change, is starting to impact these sites. But the Blenheim Bomber is a clear example of how quickly a site can deteriorate. When we started diving this site a few years ago it was practically intact, today, it’s just a skeleton.

    Sam Willis

    So, another thing to remember when you’re looking at these images is that they’re not going to be like that forever. The whole point of taking these wonderful 3D images is that there’s a record of them for when they are no longer there – they can no longer be seen, dived on, or appreciated at all. So, you’re creating, you know, its own little moment in history. Your kind of – your freeze-framing it as it is on the seabed at the moment. And then how about another one – you’ve got the Junkers, the Ju 88, a German version, a German plane. Tell me about that one.

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Well, the War, the Second World War in Malta was mainly fought in the air but, and I’m not saying this because it’s a Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, but the main reason that the Germans wanted to annihilate the island and as a base for the British, was that it was a thorn in Rommel’s side. From Malta, the Fighting 10th, okay, the 10th submarine flotilla would sail out and literally decimate supply convoys to North Africa. So, the only way that the axis forces could respond – well actually, there were two ways, one was to try and bomb the hell out of the island, especially the harbour area you mentioned Valletta before, you know the population was forced to leave or go under the ground in rock-cut shelters. The main reason they were bombing Valletta was it was the base for the British ships, but there were also the dockyards, so the dockyards were utilised to actually fix and repair ships such as the Illustrious, that were damaged at sea.

    The second aspect that they wanted to get at is they wanted to stop the 10th flotilla – they wanted to stop the submarines. So, what they did is the second way that they tried stopping the British using Malta as an effective attack base was to lay massive minefields. One of the sites we have on the museum is the Schnellboot the German E-boat, this was actually part of a small flotilla, they were laying mines outside the harbour, and it struck one of its own mines and sunk. So, when you see the proximity of the Schnellboot to the harbour, the Germans were getting within under a mile of the coast. That’s the risks – that’s reflective of the risks they were willing to take in order to sort of disable Malta as a fighting force. And some of the sites that are coming up on the museum, for example, HMS Olympus the famous submarine we discovered some years ago, was sunk by a mine laid by the Germans and the Italians. So, their minefields were indeed effective, Sam.

    Sam Willis

    It’s fascinating, isn’t it? One of the things we’ve started off there talking about the German bomber in comparison with the Bristol Blenheim and this Ju 88 is in magnificent condition isn’t it – just sort of sitting there.

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Yes. I changed tack a bit. So, the Ju 88 was the main bomber used by the Germans in the war. And it was one of the main bombers that use to fly out of Sicily to attack Malta; to carry out these attacks on the dock of the airfields and so on. And there are a number of Ju 88’s that were shot down into the sea. We have two already on the museum. One of them, the one that you’re referring to, is in absolute pristine condition. The cockpit is still intact, the forward-looking gun is still intact. And there’s a reason why the Ju 88 at the south of the island is in such perfect condition, this is deeper than the Blenheim and light is cut out. So, the less light there is, the more – the less growth there is. So, the less biological impact. The sea is colder, the temperature is more stable. Therefore, the conditions are conducive to better preservation. And, I must say, the pilot must have made a fantastic ditching into the sea because you cannot have such a well-preserved plane if this crashed at terminal velocity for example.

    Sam Willis

    It seems to have just settled down. Isn’t that the one that’s missing the rescue dinghy on the back? Is that right?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Yes. Yes. So, for your listeners, if they go on the site there’s a rectangular space towards the tail and that’s where the rescue dingy used to be. So, this is indicative that the crew survived and that they got into the dingy and we’re still trying to research which actual plane this one is. As I said so many Ju 88s got shot down. But there was – the RAF ran a fantastic air-sea rescue, I must say. There’s an excellent book called ‘Call Out’ which is a transcription – a day to day diary – of these three motor launches that literally, Sam, risked life and limb to go out and rescue pilots, not only British, American Canadian, but also German and Italians. And they did a fantastic job of going out and rescuing pilots in the centre of the Mediterranean. So, we’re trying to match the Ju 88 that we discovered in 108 meters or so with one of the rescuers by the RAF fast launch.

    Sam Willis

    Wonderful. It’s a great story and each one’s a little kind of a microcosm of history which you can unravel. What about this X lighter, you’ve got an X lighter – what’s that?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Well, the X lighter is again a very popular site, dive site, especially when the northwest blows because she’s in situ. The X lighter is like a bunkering barge and the one that is sank off Manoel Island in Malta is reputed to have taken part in the Gallipoli campaign.

    Sam Willis

    Okay, so this is something that was built for the First World War but then repurposes for the Second.

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Absolutely. So, already in World War Two, she comes with a baggage of history. She’s already – it sort of has historic importance because she’s used in the Gallipoli campaign. Now quite clearly, you know, when you’re in desperate need of equipment, nobody’s going to say oh, no, we’ll preserve this X lighter because she took part in Gallipoli, and she was used as a bunkering barge at the submarine base off Manoel Island. In the beginning, the German planes didn’t know where the submarines were based because every time there was an air raid, the submarines would settle on the seabed. If I take a step back, the British had started excavating submarine pens in the 1930s, but they were deemed too expensive, and the British Parliament sort of cut the budget and stopped them. So anyway, the submarines used to sink – used to go down to the bottom and evade detection. Eventually, the German planes found out what was happening and so they would come in, dive, and bomb the base of the submarine flotilla. There were two casualties – two submarines sunk in the harbour, one of which was brought up and cut up and scuttled outside, another one was brought up whole and then scuttled outside Malta, to train [lost] operators. The X lighter was the victim of one bombing raid. If you visit the virtual museum ‘Underwater Malta’, you get a very good idea of the shape and type of barge it is. Incidentally, even if you dive it, it’s only in 15-20 meters of water, but you never see it in its entirety because the waters are pretty murky in the harbour. So, this is also an opportunity for people who have dived it or who are going to dive it to visualise it in its entirety. But once you open up the 3D model on the side, there is a very, very clear marking of a bomb that penetrated its side. And that bomb went right through that barge and sunk it on the spot.

    Sam Willis

    My mouth was wide open when I actually looked at that. I’ve seen quite a few images of wrecks, but it’s very, very powerful just to give you an impression of the sheer ferocity of the explosion sank that vessel. I also love this idea of, you know, all of these wrecks from a similar period, just sort of lying around in the landscape. And if you answer the question, why does underwater cultural heritage matter? If you just imagined if I didn’t know in the deserts of North Africa, if all of Rommel’s tanks were still there, how important that would be, or on the beaches of Normandy, and in some places underwater it’s just lying there waiting to be discovered – waiting to be seen. And that’s why I think you’re doing such a wonderful job. If you could sum it up – why do you think underwater cultural heritage matters?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Well, it matters on various levels. And I’ll give you a very current and very real example. In May 2019, my team were involved in the discovery of HMS Urge, a British submarine from the 10th Flotilla. The 10th Flotilla was asked to leave Malta because it was deemed too dangerous and to go to Alexandria, and the HMS Urge never made it. She was presumed lost in action, which she was. Now some years ago, I was contacted by the grandson of Commander Tomkinson, who was lost with all hands on deck, there were 28 crew and 10 guests, including a very well-known journalist. To cut a long story short, we deployed our sonar and after a number of days, discovered her lying off the seabed, off Malta. So, like the Olympus she struck a mine, sank to the seabed, never to be seen again until May 2009. We’ve remained – the grandson of Commander Tomkinson, his mother is still alive. So, the daughter of the commander who was just a few months old, okay, when her father went down with the mother’s love letters on board, some keepsakes and so on, is actually still alive. And one of the first things that the grandson did was he went back to his mother to show her images of her father’s wreck. Now, like Commander Tomkinson, as I said, there were 37 others, so over the years, 37, you know, multiplies into quite a large number of relatives, and so. And it is absolutely incredible, the importance with which these relatives deem this discovery, and we hope that they will come to Malta in April, COVID permitting, in April 2022, Sam, which is the 80th anniversary of the Urges sinking and we plan some big dives in order to place a commemorative plaque, and the family will be unveiling a memorial to these 38 persons at Fort St Elmo. Now, I know it’s a bit of a long-winded answer. But if that’s doesn’t show the importance of underwater cultural heritage, then I don’t know. I mean, I can talk about ancient trade and what the, you know, what shipwrecks have taught us about that? But when you actually have such a tangible human story – I think it makes it all worthwhile.

    Sam Willis

    That’s a wonderful answer. Wonderful answer. And so, where are we with the virtual museum? I mean, are there more wrecks going to be posted up there as you go along?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    At the moment, there are 14 sites just like, I was about to say, just like a real museum – this is a real museum, it’s just placed in a virtual world because you can’t pick up the shipwrecks and place them in a building, you wouldn’t want to do that anyway. So, just like any other museum, the collection is not a dead and static collection. We have 14 sites currently online, we’re planning – we’re actually, as we speak, my team are working on putting another 3 sites online, that will take it up to 17. Within the next two, three years, depending on the funding levels that we are able to maintain, we have at least up to 40 sites and that is excluding anything else that we discover in the coming years because we’re deploying our sonar every year for a number of weeks. So, up to 40 sites. This is important because it will keep our clients so to speak, they’re not here because the museum is free, but it will keep our you know, our visitors coming back to the site because there’s always going to be something new.

    Sam Willis

    It’s brilliant. It’s really fantastic. It’s one of the best examples of using modern technology to bring the maritime past closer to as many people as possible that I’ve ever, ever come across. And I heartily congratulate you.

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Thank you very much, Sam.

    Sam Willis

    Everyone who’s listening, please, please, go and check it out. And Timmy, what’s the address?

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    It’s virtual museum – it’s underwatermalta.org – very simple underwatermalta.org

    Sam Willis

    Well, I’m sure we’re going to be coming back because you’ve teased me about Malta’s ship graffiti, and I’m determined to come out there with a video camera and get some of it. So I’ll be back to speak to you again soon Tim, bye, bye.

    Professor Timmy Gambin

    Bye. Thank you.

    Sam Willis

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