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Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds

Media Backgrounder: Discovery, Recovery, Conservation and Exhibition of the Belitung Cargo

Media only: Katie Ziglar: 202-633-0449
Public only: 202.633.1000

March 16, 2011

In 1998, fishermen diving for sea cucumbers off the coast of Belitung, a small island in the Java Sea, discovered a mysterious mound rising above the flat seabed. It was found to consist of an ancient shipwreck with an immense cargo of Chinese ceramics. When the ship was recognized as an Arab dhow, scholars realized that this was the first intact proof of a maritime trade route between West Asia (probably the Abbasid capital of Baghdad) and China in the ninth-century CE.

  • The objects were discovered in 1998 by local fishermen in shallow waters off the coast of Belitung Island, Indonesia.
  • Neither local nor national Indonesian authorities had the resources or expertise necessary to mount a full-scale archaeological excavation and the newly discovered shipwreck was immediately vulnerable to looting and damage.
  • At the same time, due to political turmoil caused by the fall of the 32-year-old Suharto regime in May 1998, it proved difficult for the Indonesian government to guarantee the security and safety of the shipwreck location, risking the complete destruction of an archaeological site of substantial promise.
  • The Indonesian government recognized the danger to the site and ordered that the cargo be raised as quickly as possible. A license was issued to a local salvage company by the Republic of Indonesia’s National Committee for Salvage and Utilization of Valuable Objects from Sunken Ships (PANNAS BMKT), the government agency with oversight authority for sunken vessels and cargo.
  • Indonesian authorities were aware that Seabed Explorations, a German commercial salvage enterprise was already operating in the area. Tilman Walterfang, director of Seabed Explorations, promptly agreed to provide the resources necessary to rescue the Belitung shipwreck and recover its contents.  The Indonesian salvage company executed a contract of cooperation with Seabed Explorations.
  • Excavation at the site commenced in September 1998 and was conducted over the course of two seasons. These seasons were interrupted by a break during the monsoon period.
  • The Indonesian navy was permanently deployed at the base camp during the monsoon and did its best to safeguard the site. Despite this naval presence, fending off looters continued to be difficult.
  • Due to the threat of looting, the first season of work focused on the retrieval of the ship’s cargo. During the second season, archaeological work was supervised under direction of Dr. Michael Flecker, an experienced specialist in Southeast Asian underwater archaeology. Flecker made records of the boat and site, and supervised the retrieval of organic materials—including samples from the hull—providing scientific documentation that eventually led scholars to understand that the Belitung wreck was the oldest Arab vessel discovered in Asian waters.
  • The ship’s cargo contained the largest group of Tang dynasty artifacts ever found. Approximately 60,000 objects were recovered. With licenses from the Indonesian authorities, they were exported to New Zealand and Germany for conservation, research and treatment.
  • Seabed Explorations commissioned an international group of scholars to research the finds. The result was two major studies, one on the finds as a whole and a second on the Changsha ceramics that formed the bulk of the cargo. Neither has been published, but these scholars were the principal contributors to Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. They include John Guy, curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; François Louis, associate professor, Bard Graduate Center, New York; and Hsieh Ming-Liang, chair, Graduate Institute of Art History, National Taiwan University, Taipei.
  • The Republic of Indonesia has declared that the export of the objects was approved by the Indonesian government and conformed to all applicable laws and regulations.
  • The conservation of the objects was performed to professional museum standards. German conservator Andreas Rettel, trained at the prestigious center of the RömischGermanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz, supervised a team of conservators in New Zealand and Germany.
  • The efforts associated with the recovery of both ship fragments and cargo have allowed for a radical reappraisal of a Maritime Silk Route to China and West Asia, answering questions on the nature of Asian sea trade with far greater certainty than was possible before.
  • In 2005, with the goal of keeping this unprecedented discovery intact for future generations, the excavated cargo was sold to the Sentosa Leisure Group, a statutoryboard under the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry, for the amount of US $32 million.
  • Shortly after the exhibition Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds opened on Feb. 19, 2011, the Singapore Tourism Board announced plans for a future permanent exhibition at a National Heritage Board of Singapore museum that will ensure the cargo will continue to receive a high standard of curatorial supervision and conservation oversight, while providing access for the public and scholars.
  • The exhibition now on view in Singapore and proposed for a worldwide tour, including a  stop at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, will be accompanied by a public conference in Washington, D.C., focused on the preservation of underwater cultural heritage.
  • Julian Raby, director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, will be co-convener of Singapore’s first conference on underwater cultural heritage on June 18, 2011.
  • The scientific excavation of underwater artifacts is a relatively new field, having come of age in the second half of the 20th century. Today, a number of national and international organizations act in an advisory capacity for issues surrounding underwater cultural heritage management. The organizations have issued several statements outlining best practices. These include the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which came into force in 2009. Approximately 30 countries are signatories to this convention and some 150 are not, including Indonesia, the United States and Great Britain.  
  • Some Belitung objects can be found for sale on internet sites. These were likely pilfered from the site before Seabed Explorations began supervising it, or between seasons of excavation. Those currently available are all Changsha bowls, identical to those preserved in Singapore, where the collection comprises some 47,000 bowls.
  • For detailed information about Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds and underwater cultural heritage, including the conservation of the finds, see http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/SW-CulturalHeritage.asp.
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