Monday, June 27, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" on the High Seas

It seems that, according to this article (also here), hundreds of artifacts from "dozens" of Spice Route-era shipwrecks (c. 1500-1800AD) off of the Tanjung Tuan coast, Malaysia, have been stolen by illicit underwater looters (here read 'salvagers') since the 1990s. What really struck me about these short articles, however, was that on the one hand, the Museum Authority was asked by the state government to gather more information for prosecutions, but on the other, the government itself tried to offer (bribe?) salvage companies to retrieve further artifacts, with the deal most likely to include the local retention of some finds, but the open sale of others (as the full-scale salvage of a single wreck was not the stated goal, unlike the controversial Javanese shipwreck whose artifacts might soon be displayed by the Smithsonian). What maritime excavation methodologies do any of the solicited companies employ? Any regards to context preservation? Nothing is stated.

The article implies that the most active salvage companies or private small enterprises already knew that the wrecks in question have been picked clean. As the time, effort and money involved to 'loot' underwater is far beyond "subsistence digging," the issue to me seems to be one of how to define "national treasure" in the case of high seas 'salvaging?' The people involved were locals of a specific ethnicity (Malay or Chinese-Malay in this case), and the artifacts removed came out of near-shore (i.e. not "international") waters. However, their shipwreck context indicates that such objects recovered from cargo holds were collected and transported far and wide in antiquity. If sold, would pieces such as the Chinese blue and white porcelain (see photo above left) go to a) local Malay dealers; b) non-Malay dealers from countries such as China, people who might see no problem profiting from the sale of "treasure" originally made within the former or current boarders of their country, or c) Western dealers and buyers seeking to cash in on possibly romanticized stories of arduous long distance trade voyages in the time of sail ships and pirates? Each of the parties mentioned above could stake a different claim on anything 'salvaged' from these wrecks, but at the end of the day, looting is still looting when insufficient care is given to archaeological context, no matter how it's dressed up or couched in nationalistic terms.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!

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