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Underwater Cultural Heritage

Issues Raised by the Belitung Shipwreck

Discovered in shallow water near inhabited shores in 1998, the Belitung shipwreck was immediately vulnerable to looting and accidental destruction due to fishing activity. Soon after the ship was found, Indonesian authorities granted a license to a salvage company, which employed archaeologists to record details of the site, the ship, and its contents.

A number of international and professional organizations dedicated to underwater archaeology vehemently oppose any commercial involvement in the exploration and recovery of shipwrecks. Their members argue that commercial involvement compromises the painstaking task of documenting excavation sites and encourages plunder rather than preservation. Others, however, contend that public-private partnerships can help prevent massive loss and dispersal in an era when the seabed is under increasing threat—particularly in regions without institutions equipped to conduct full-scale underwater archaeological surveys and excavations.

The issues surrounding the Belitung ship and the exhibition of its contents are complex. While various stakeholders may disagree on their resolution, it is our hope that all will value this opportunity for a worldwide conversation on underwater cultural heritage in Southeast Asia and beyond. The links provided here are intended as a starting place to learn more about this subject as it has taken shape in international practice and dialogue, higher education, and museums around the world.

Ewers with relief decoration. China, Hunan province, Changsha kilns.

The Freer|Sackler is closed for renovation and reinstallation. The popular exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan is still on view in the International Gallery. (Enter through the Ripley Center.) Join us for our reopening celebration on October 14–15, 2017.