Show of shipwrecked treasures raises scientists’ ire

Gold vessels from the Belitung wreck are shown here at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore

By Tracy Watson - Nature

A museum show of sumptuous treasures from a ninth-century shipwreck is being denounced by researchers, who say that commercial salvage of the artefacts irreversibly damaged the wreck’s scientific value.

On 6 February, the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology sent a letter of opposition to the Asia Society, the non-profit group that is mounting the show of Chinese Tang-dynasty porcelains, gold vessels and other objects from the wreck at its New York City museum. Critics fear that the exhibition, slated to open on 7 March, will encourage exploitation of wrecks by for-profit firms.

Museums that show salvaged treasures don’t intend to promote treasure-hunting, “but that’s the effect it has”, says Marco Meniketti, an archaeologist at San José State University in California who leads the advisory council.

Artefacts from the Belitung wreck, named after the Indonesian island close to the ship’s final resting spot, were scheduled to go on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery in Washington DC in 2012.

The institution cancelled the exhibition in December 2011 after vocal opposition from Smithsonian scientists and others. But the problems presented by exhibiting the spoils of commercial salvage remain, says maritime archaeologist Filipe Castro at Texas A&M University in College Station.

That type of excavation “silences all the questions that a vessel like that could answer”, he says, reeling off a list of data that should have been collected at the Belitung site.

In a statement, the Asia Society said that “American audiences should have an opportunity to see this material because of its significance”. In recognition of “the sensitivities” around the exhibition, the society is co-sponsoring a public symposium about the ethics of archaeology and commercial salvage.

And the head of Seabed Explorations, the company that salvaged the wreck, defended his team’s work. “Without Seabed Explorations there wouldn’t be any data existing at all about the Belitung shipwreck,” says Tilman Walterfang.

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