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Shipwreck exhibit stirs up storm at Smithsonian

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Shipwreck excavation a cause of wrangling between archaeologists and commercial excavators
  • Planned exhibition of shipwreck finds at Smithsonian highlighting problem
  • Archaeologists argue that salvage companies not scientific in approach
  • Salvage companies say wrecks are at risk from looting and ocean damage

London, England (CNN) -- Though they sit quietly beneath the waves, shipwrecks are a cause of much wrangling above the surface. The issue of underwater archaeology is clouded by concerns about treasure hunting, the safety of wrecks, and the sale of finds.

A planned 2012 exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, featuring 9th century Chinese artifacts salvaged from a wreck in Indonesian waters in 1998 is at the center of the latest row.

Archaeologists within the institution -- and further afield -- are criticizing the curator's decision to mount the show and, in particular, questioning the nature of the original salvage.

Discovered off the coast of the island Belitung in the Java Sea by fishermen diving for sea cucumbers in 1998, the 9th century Arab dhow was a treasure trove of objects including glazed ceramics, and silver and gold wares.

The Indonesian government granted permission to a private German salvage company, Seabed Explorations GbR, to excavate the wreck using divers.

The collection of finds, which included 60,000 objects, was sold largely intact to Sentosa Leisure Group, a statutory board under the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry, for $32 million, according to the Smithsonian.

The (Indonesian) government dictated the pace of recovery (not us) ...
--Tilman Walterfang, Seabed Explorations

Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, where the exhibition is due to take place, said that the finds represent a highly significant discovery for historians, in particular showing the existence of a kind of maritime silk route between Iraq and China.

"The reality of this wreck, understanding the mixture of things that are involved -- it completely blows your mind," said Raby. Yet some scholars are unhappy about the show.

Paul Johnston, Curator of Maritime History at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, believes that the wreck was excavated too quickly. He said that it was done within just two short seasons -- one of which was just two months long -- and therefore without enough due diligence.

"I don't personally see how anyone could possibly recover 60,000 objects in just two seasons and claim that it's a scientific excavation," he said.

But in an email to CNN, Tilman Walterfang, of Seabed Explorations, wrote: "The (Indonesian) government dictated the pace of recovery (not us) because security for the artifacts and the team couldn't be guaranteed. It was a race against time, with the monsoon season approaching fast, and looters hovering both day and night."

Raby, for his part, defends the salvage company, saying that the objects were conserved to a high degree and that archaeologists were on hand to help with excavations. He also said that the world should celebrate the fact that the collection was sold intact, and not dispersed across the market.

While some looting did take place between seasons, he said, the majority of the wreck's artifacts are kept together.

The Belitung wreck highlights a broader dispute between the archaeological community and commercial excavators, which David Mearns, marine scientist and director of commercial salvage company Blue Water Recoveries, likens to "an open warfare."

I don't personally see how anyone could possibly recover 60,000 objects in just two seasons and claim that it's a scientific excavation
--Paul Johnston, Curator of Maritime History, National Museum of American History

"There is a group of academic archaeologists who for whatever reason don't want anything to be touched at all other than by themselves, and certainly not sold," he said, adding that often archaeologists are invited to take part in commercial excavations, but refuse on principle to participate.

"The real concern archaeologists have in regard to this exhibition is that a lot of people on the commercial side will be able to use this to justify their own activities," said Bruce Smith, Curator of North American Archaeology at the Smithsonian. He fears that it will open the door to what he calls "treasure hunters."

But both Seabed Explorations and Raby believe that a middle ground may be reached, that archaeologists and commercial enterprises can work together to excavate wrecks to the highest possible standards.

They say that wrecks are at risk of being looted by local divers and face damage wrought by the ocean itself. Archaeologists may not have the funding to reach a wreck in time, they say, but salvage companies do.

Still, Paul Johnston believes that where money is concerned, due diligence and proper scientific work can often be compromised. In his experience, which includes excavating wrecks in American waters, the vessels are more likely to be damaged by the actions of man than the ocean itself, he said. He maintains he has never had any trouble getting funding for a shipwreck excavation.

In an effort to clear a path through these thorny arguments, Raby of the Smithsonian is inviting some of the most eminent scholars in the field of underwater archaeology to discuss the issue at a conference set for the end of April.

"If we're looking to raise public and political consciousness about the importance of cultural heritage," he said, "then I think one has to ask whether diktat is better than dialogue."