Tang Shipwreck Exhibition at the Asia Society

Michael Flecker took this photograph of part of the wreck of the vessel in 1998.

The Asia Society has managed to avoid the scorn of underwater heritage preservers and exhibit objects from the Tang Shipwreck. Earlier attempts to display these objects by the Smithsonian in 2011 were cancelled because archaeologists argued the archaeological documentation of the wreck was insufficient and had been done with a primary aim of profit, not the advancement of knowledge.

The wreck was discovered in 1998 off the coast of Indonesia by sea cucumber divers. The vessel confirmed the sea routes between West Asia and Iraq or Iran. As the Asia Society’s director, Boon Hui Tan describes the exhibit:

[G]lobalisation is a very, very old concept—and it’s not just a Western concept . . . . There was a kind of economic dynamism [in the Tang Dynasty] that came from, in a sense, being connected with the outside world . . . . The Belitung shipwreck is one of the most significant archaeological finds in recent history . . .

The wreck held as many as 60,000 objects, including ceramic bowls; decorated mirrors; and valuable silver and gold objects. By all accounts this really was a chance find, fishermen were said to have been looting the wreck, so there was some urgency to recover the objects from the vessel while also undertaking research into the underwater archaeology. Whether that scientific undertaking was hastily done in order to secure financial rewards by putting together this kind of travelling exhibition, or the Indonesian authorities did the best they could with a limited budget is a question very much open to debate.  The exhibit titled “Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia” will run through June 4, 2017.

  1. Robin Pogrebin, A Sunken Treasure Will Appear in New York Despite Its Controversial Excavation, The New York Times, Feb. 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/arts/shipwreck-treasure-new-york-display.html.
  2. Victoria Stapley-Brown, Controversial trove from imperial Chinese shipwreck lands in New York (Mar. 7, 2017), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/controversial-trove-from-imperial-chinese-shipwreck-lands-in-new-york/.

The Smithsonian Postpones Dhow Exhibition

Bronze Coins from the Tang Dynasty, Brought up from the 9th Century Wreck

In a move which shouldn’t be all that surprising, the Smithsonian has decided to postpone the exhibition of artifacts recovered from a 9th century shipwreck which sunk off the coast of present-day Indonesia. The wreck offered new insights into the trade between China and the Middle East. The exhibition was scheduled to begin next spring, but now won’t be rescheduled until 2013 at the earliest.

Archaeologists criticized the exhibition arguing that the objects were recovered without adherence to professional archaeological standards. Fishermen were looting the wreck, and in response the Indonesian government hired a salvage company to bring the objects up from the depths, and did employ a marine archaeologist. The objects were brought up quickly, but in the eyes of some, these objects were little better than looted objects. Archaeologists like Kimberly Faulk who call the salvage of these objects ‘looting’ are stretching the term. Michael Flecker, an archaeologist who worked for the commercial salvage operation published his findings:

  1. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Volume 29(2), 2000.
  2. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 37(2), 2008.

The open question though is what should happen to these 60,000 recovered objects. What about the next wreck fishermen are looting? These objects present a difficult dilemma. They weren’t taken in contravention of Indonesian law, these are legally-acquired objects. Indonesia may have done a poor job of protecting the underwater site, but in a world of finite resources, it seems to me being too critical of this exhibition sets a very high, nearly impossible to meet standard for exhibitions.

There may have been serious issues with the excavation undertaken by Seabed Excavations, the company hired by the Indonesian government to excavate the site. Yet, were those omissions sufficient to warrant this looting? Sufficent to preclude the display of these objects?This move may give the Smithsonian time to alleviate concerns of archaeologists, or more likely, may indicate a desire to avoid the entire controversy and cancel the exhibition without saying it outright.

Shipwreck Show Postponed – NYTimes.com

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com