If you find yourself at loose ends in Singapore in the next little while, why not stroll down to the newly renovated Asian Civilizations Museum, with the specific purpose of checking out an exhibition devoted to a ninth century shipwreck? The exhibit is a bit of an international pariah, and most unfairly I might add, but I shall get to that in a bit.

The Tang shipwreck, so called because the ship–an Arab dhow–was carrying a cargo of over sixty thousand ceramics produced during China’s Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.), was found by sea cucumber divers off the island of Belitung in Indonesia in the late 1990s.

It provides concrete evidence of early and extensive trade between China and the Arab world, the longest route ever sailed by a sewn ship.

Given its location at the crossroads of trade between East and West, the waters around Southeast Asia are practically teeming with such shipwrecks. Many are veritable treasure chests, and lucky is the fisherman who first discovers them. Operating on the principle of “finders, keepers,” the fishermen typically “remove” most of the valuable items from these shipwrecks by the time government teams get to them. This is why time is of the essence, but lack of financial and technical capacity, combined with bureaucratic and political hurdles, often creates long delays. Unsurprisingly, governments in the region prefer to hire private salvage companies to do the work.

The Tang shipwreck was discovered during a time of intense political turmoil and regime change in Indonesia, which meant that there was simply no institutional will to recover the wreck. Given these challenges, it was thought that the best way to proceed was to outsource the excavation to a private salvage company, albeit one known for its professionalism and expertise. This was done in accordance with existing Indonesian laws.

Images of the Wreck.
Images of the Wreck.

Under the excavation license, title to the wreck was transferred to the salvage company. To recover the costs of the excavation, the salvage company sold the entire collection of artifacts to the Sentosa Development Corporation, a statutory board in Singapore. This ensured that the collection could be viewed and studied as a whole. The Singapore government in turn committed to making the collection available to academics and the public, on which they have followed through admirably.

Still, when it came time to display the collection internationally, overseas partner institutions–the Smithsonian in the United States, to be precise–hesitated. The reason for their refusal was that a private and for-profit company had been hired to excavate the artifacts, and this was in direct violation of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Clause 21 of the Convention prohibits commercial exploitation (i.e. the sale of ) underwater cultural heritage.

The lofty principles of the Convention are understandable given the potential for abuse in for-profit salvage operations. Nonetheless, in their dogmatic stand, the Smithsonian officials ignored the fact that neither Indonesia, Singapore nor the United States are signatories to the Convention. More ridiculous still, the Convention wasn’t even in existence when the Belitung transactions took place.

Finally, following the letter of the law would have made the excavation impossible. Given the circumstances, it was to the credit of the parties involved that they had tried to adhere to the spirit of the Convention as much as possible.