Smithsonian Shipwreck Exhibit Stirs Up Controversy

Posted on March 21, 2011


An interesting debate has arisen in the context of an upcoming Smithsonian exhibit on shipwrecks, echoing the consistent tension between academic and commercial archaeologists.

The Indonesian government contracted with a private German salvage operation to recover some 60,000 objects from a 9th century Chinese wreck. The problem is that the recovery was done in only two seasons — to the chagrin of “academic archaeologists.” They say that a proper excavation of this many objects cannot be done in that amount of time by definition.

The salvage company explains that the Indonesian government set the pace of the excavations, and that they were fighting against monsoon as well as looters who were hovering like vultures. In fact, they did lose some of the objects between seasons to looters.

The finds are significant, showing a maritime silk route between Iraq and China in the 9th century.

As to the controversy, the article explains:

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.”

“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.”

I see both sides — of course it’s never good to yank archaeological objects out of the ground, sacrificing their context. However, under our current system of law, this kind of cultural property is treated like property. It’s up to Indonesia to decide what’s in their best interest — to have commercial salvage operations recover the objects before they fall victim to nature or looters, or to have archaeologists spend years pulling them up in a more detailed manner.   It’s largely a funding issue as well, as a decade-long recovery process will inevitably be more expensive than recovering the objects in two seasons and selling them off (for $32 million, in this case).

Read more at CNN: Shipwreck exhibit stirs up storm at Smithsonian