The race to preserve shipwrecks, artifacts

Underwater Heritage Program Directorate/Adhi Perwira 
Credit: Underwater Heritage Program Directorate/Adhi Perwira


By Andrea Booth - The Jakarta Post


Lack of finance, technology and trained divers, the attempt to sell sunken artifacts — not to mention looters — appear to be hindering the potential to conserve Indonesia’s abundant underwater heritage, a topic under hot discussion of late.

The Underwater Heritage Program Directorate (PBA) under the Culture and Tourism Ministry’s Directorate General of History and Archaeology is keen to set up a system to overcome these challenges.

“Our objective is to preserve these culturally valuable remnants of our past,” Gunawan, chief director of the PBA said.

The directorate recently conducted five dives over 10 days to recover artifacts in the Karimunjawa region, Jepara, Central Java.

“We want the artifacts we have uncovered to stay and be looked after in Indonesia so that citizens and generations to come can learn more about the role Indonesia has played in the maritime industry from the 9th to the 19th centuries.” The PBA said in a press statement it would also help boost the tourism industry.

This initiative is not without challenges, however. Gunawan says the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry Pannas BMKT’s (the national committee of excavation and utilization of precious artifacts from sunken ships) commercializing of artifacts, including the unsuccessful auction early May of treasure reportedly worth US$80 billion, is devaluing Indonesia’s history.

Pannas BMKT’s secretary general Sudirman Saad recently told The Jakarta Post that artifacts the state wanted to preserve were held in a government warehouse in Cileungsi, West Java, with the remainder stocked in a privately owned warehouse in Pamulang, South Jakarta.

Gunawan said he was concerned that precious artifacts would not be preserved and wanted to encourage people to value them — as well as shipwrecks — more so they could learn more about their past and enhance national pride.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) agreed that selling the underwater artifacts meant Indonesia would lose its valuable heritage. “Exploiting an archaeological site and dispersing its artifacts is an irreversible process. Yet the contents of the shipwreck found off the coast of the city of Cirebon have much to tell us about cultural and commercial exchanges in the region at that time,” UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said in a press statement.

While Gunawan said it would take time to build a solid system to extract and preserve the artifacts, and gain people’s interest, he believed this goal could still be reached.

“People may be worried that [we may not have the technology], especially in Indonesia, and this may be because there has never been a preservation process undertaken before,” Gunawan said. “But we have to start at some point and I’m sure we are capable.”


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Indonesia BMKT Underwater Heritage Program Directorate Culture and Tourism Ministry Directorate General of History and Archaeology