Smithsonian shipwreck exhibit draws fire from archaeologists

A commercial company salvaged Tang dynasty bowls and thousands of other precious artifacts from a 9th century C.E. shipwreck. 
Photo Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

By Heather Pringle - Science Mag.

Archaeologists are criticizing the ethics of a planned Smithsonian Institution exhibit, Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, slated to open in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 2012.

The exhibit is based on artifacts hauled up from an Arab dhow that sank to the bottom of the Java Sea in the 9th century C.E.

The wreck was salvaged by a private German company, Seabed Explorations GbR, in the late 1990s, and critics say that its divers did not observe professional archaeological standards while recovering the artifacts, which include glazed ceramics, lead ingots, and intricately worked vessels of silver and gold from the Tang dynasty.

Then in 2005, most of the finds were sold to a second company in Singapore for a reported $32 million.

Such commercialization of ancient objects doesn't break the laws of Indonesia, in whose territorial waters the dhow was found, but many archaeologists say that it contravenes their field's standard ethical guidelines.

In recent weeks, three major American archaeological associations and three of the Smithsonian's own internal research organizations have written to Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough strongly opposing the exhibition.

"We agree that there was unprofessional and unethical conduct associated with the recovery of this wreck, regardless of the 'letter of the law,' and that at the least, the perception of impropriety and the potential for the Smithsonian's engagement with this project could set a negative precedent and reflect ill on this institution," wrote Melissa Songer, chair of the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars, in her letter.

Underwater archaeologists have been fighting for decades to protect shipwreck sites from treasure-hunting operations that mine sunken ships for artifacts to sell.

In 2009, the archaeological community scored a major victory when the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage came into effect.

It stated that "underwater cultural heritage shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods."


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