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

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