Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Looting on the High Seas

Once again, a colleague of mine here at ANU (thanks J.L.!) has brought two recent news articles to my attention, both previously released in the World Archaeological Congress digest. They both (here and here) concern the arrest and travel ban imposed on British born Australian "treasure hunter" Michael Hatcher, who is wanted for "trying to smuggle thousands of pieces of Ming dynasty (1368-1644) porcelain out of Indonesia in July. Police intercepted two ships containing the items, for which they have "strong indications" that they came from a wreck site in the Java Straight. If convicted, he "could be jailed for 5 years and fined 50 million rupiah ($6,000)."

What's the most troubling about these articles to me is not the relatively insignificant fine he'll have to pay (although this slap on the wrist is tempered somewhat by the jail time), but that he has been "excavating" ship wrecks since the 1980s, making $17 million US at his first government sanctioned auction (of gold ingots and Chinese porcelain from a wreck off of Sumatra's Riau islands). Furthermore, despite his pending trial and 'house arrest' in Indonesia, the articles report that "he has already begun to market items from his latest wreck."

Another immense haul of ancient artifacts from a unidentified 10th century shipwreck "off of Cirebon, West Java" was brought to the surface between 2004 and 2005 by Belgian "treasure hunter" Luc Heyman's Cosmix Underwater Research, Ltd., and his "local partner" Paradigma Putra Sejathera, who, despite "arranged survey and excavation licences," faced the temporary arrest of two of their divers, conflict with the Indonesian Navy and rival 'salvage crews,' a "year of litigation and two years of waiting while Indonesia drafted new regulations to govern such work." In spite of the immensity and diversity of the haul and "expressions of interest from across Asia," the US $16 million deposit to bid, and short notice of the auction's existence, resulted in the auction being a bust. The disappointment of the "treasure hunters" in a situation like this is almost palpable, as they'd have walked away with one half of all proceeds! Even the UNESCO Director-General has weighed in on the matter, expressing concern over the fact that these important archaeological artifacts would have been (and still might be) dispersed wholesale.

There are numerous examples of shipwreck looting around the world, such as this instance from Spain, and this drastic response measure concerning a Greek wreck off of Croatia. Southeast Asia (e.g., cases from the Philippines and Cambodia), unfortunately, is becoming even more well-known when it comes to underwater looting...and let's make no mistake: "Treasure hunting" by divers, often as part of well-financed companies with backers and buyers already lined up, IS looting! As one dive shop owner in the Philippines article linked to above said "And this you can quote me-ankle weights, crowbars, hammers and chisels are not the ordinary tools of fun divers." For much more information on maritime (nautical) archaeology as it's really performed by professionals, please see the home pages of two of the best Nautical Archaeology academic programs in the world: Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas, USA), and Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia). Let's hope for both a fair trial for Mr. Hatcher, but a quick succession of these clandestine activities as well, and museum curation/display by Indonesian and international authorities of as much of this haul as possible.

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