Archaeologists fear the damage that oil platform could do to cities dating from the 7th century BC. Andrew Johnson reports
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. …