A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
For many archaeologists and archaeology lovers, the recent news of the Smithsonian’s postponement of a planned exhibit on what is called the Belitung Shipwreck came as a relief. Belitung, an island off Indonesia, is the site of a major underwater archaeological discovery made in 1998. A ship carrying a huge cargo of fine porcelain, glazed pottery, and vessels cast in precious metals—all apparently Chinese productions of the ninth-century Tang Dynasty—was accidentally discovered by fishermen. Looting followed and the Indonesian government hired a commercial salvage company to retrieve the remaining artifacts. Ultimately, some 63,000 objects were raised from the seabed, a cache that was sold to the government of Singapore for tens of millions of dollars. An exhibit of a number of these artifacts has been mounted and, for some months now, some of the materials from the find have been touring in a show that was to open later this year at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (part of the constellation of museums that constitute the Smithsonian) as “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.”
Although one might initially applaud Indonesia’s quick action, the selection of Seabed Explorations, a salvage company, instead of professional archaeologists, to bring up the shipwreck’s artifacts, has raised an outcry because people believe it indicates that the motive was extraction of artifacts for commercial gain rather than scientific excavation. Few records were kept of the find and we have no proper documentation of the ship, its crew, or its cargo. This may be some of the first archaeological evidence that maritime trade existed between China and southwest Asia during the Tang Dynasty. Proper archaeological excavation could have told us much more.
In matters such as this, the Archaeological Institute of America’s position has been, and remains, clear. The AIA is opposed to the exhibition of artifacts that have been obtained from commercially exploited sites. We support the Smithsonian’s ongoing consideration of the complex issues, both archaeological and museological, that the exhibit raises. We urge its planners to recognize that the display of artifacts obtained in this manner encourages looting.
Seabeds around the globe are the resting places of shipwrecks from every age, all of which form a vital part of the world’s cultural heritage. Headlines from around the world continually place monetary value on shipwrecks. This underscores the uphill battle that both museums and archaeologists face in educating the public about this precious resource. The value of a wreck and its artifacts is not monetary. It is, instead, of incalculable value because it is the irreplaceable repository of a part of our human story.
Elizabeth Bartman is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.
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