Monday, August 19, 2013

A "Wrecked" Opportunity?

Yet another historic shipwreck has been discovered and heavily plundered off the coast of Vietnam (Quang Ngai Province), the third since 1998. Thanh Nien News reports that towards the end of June, about 30 boats full of "treasure hunters" rushed over to plunder the shallow wreck; unfortunately discovered no more than 100 meters from the coast and 1.5m deep (more news here).

The seabed around the clusters of likely c. 16th-17th century blue-on-white ceramics discovered has also been dredged and disturbed in the hunt for more artifacts, thereby revealing some of the wreck itself, but also destroying vital archaeological context regarding site formation and taphonomy. There is even testimony to the effect that axes and crowbars were used to free individual artifacts from the wreck as quickly as possible, smashing other pieces in the process!

Fortunately, police have allegedly been on patrol since last Friday morning and a southern Vietnamese "salvage" company was contracted out to conduct an excavation of what remained (see photo above left). The trajectory of discovery, looting, patrol, and "salvage" that occurred for this wreck is very similar to that which occurred for another c. 13th-14th century wreck in the area.

The merits of approaching a salvage company (headed by a known antiquities collector...), as opposed to an organization devoted to maritime archaeology such as the Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project Centre (full disclosure: colleagues of mine), is open to debate. I'd assume it's just a question of time and money, as always.

Here's hoping that authorities will have better luck recovering looted items this time around, but how many are destined for international markets as opposed to local collections is anyone's guess. Vietnamese heritage law would theoretically prevent their export (search for Vietnam here), but enforcement and detection is another matter. With the likely upcoming expansion of Dung Quat port, time is running out to decide what to do with these wreck; remove it or preserve it in-situ as a tourist attraction? Given that other wrecks from different time periods remain unexcavated (but already looted?), how authorities deal with this situation will set important precedent. Stay tuned...