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September 26, 2011

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Tale of sunken Tang treasures

A controversial exhibit of Chinese relics recovered from a sunken Arab ship is underway in Singapore. Some foreign museums have rejected it because of commercial treasure hunting. Chehui Peh reports.

For more than a millennium, a cargo of 63,000 objects carried by a 9th-century Arab dhow sailing from China lay undisturbed at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Indonesia's Belitung Island off Sumatra.

Discovered in 1998 by a group of fishermen while diving for sea cucumbers, these treasures date back to the late Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and the discovery is considered the oldest and most important marine archeological finds of the late 20th century. The cargo included exquisite ceramics and the earliest complete examples of the classic Chinese blue-and-white porcelain plates as well as intricately hand-carved gold. It also included the largest gold cup from the Tang period.

However these treasures have been wrapped in controversy and questions about the legal - and ethical - right to ownership.

The relics were restored and put up for auction in 2005 when buyers from across the globe vied to buy the treasure trove.

Singapore bid US$32 million and emerged as the winner and owner of the majority of artifacts - Indonesia retained around 8,000 artifacts.

They are on display through October 2 in a special exhibit titled "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds" at the Artscience Museum in Singapore.

They will next be exhibited in Singapore at the Maritime Xperiential Museum opening on October 15.

An international tour has been postponed indefinitely due to controversies about how the recovery was carried out by a German company.

The find is exceptionally significant since the artifacts are of exceptionally high quality. The discovery also represents irrefutable evidence of maritime trade in China 1,200 years ago - contradicting previous beliefs that China of that period was primarily an agricultural society and that trade was overland.

The discovery was made along what is sometimes called the Marine Silk Road, a route from China, through Asia to the Arab world and it is a symbol of China's status as a major sea trader in pre-modern times.


A fierce debate about commercial recovery methods and the ethics of treasure hunting have put an international tour on hold. Given the controversies, a number of museums are reluctant to accept the spectacular exhibit at this time.

In late April 2011, The New York Times reported that the Smithsonian Institution, scheduled to be the first touring stop, was under pressure from scientists to cancel the exhibition due to the use of swift, commercial recovery methods, compared with structured and time-consuming scientific excavation.

The salvage has been equated with modern-day piracy, making museums wary of appearing to endorse the fruits of excavation.

Others argue that in poor developing countries the risk of looting is overwhelming, necessitating high security and swift salvage.

But the controversy doesn't end there.

Recovered by German treasure hunter Tilman Walterfang who runs Seabed Explorations, the treasures were sold by Walterfang to Singapore's government-owned Sentosa Leisure Group for US$32million.

The sale left the Indonesian government feeling as though it had been robbed by the excavation and sale. It retained around 8,000 objects, received US$2.5 million and finds from another ship excavated by Walterfang.

Former Director of Antiquities Nunus Supardi says there is a difference between the permission granted by the Indonesia government and how it was implemented. He said Walterfang did not carry out promises to gain specific permission from the Indonesian National Committee to undertake the excavation, to build of a museum and to educate two archeologists.

The New York Times reported that Walterfang said in an e-mail to the paper that the Indonesian government requested him to carry out the recovery as fast as possible and work round-the-clock. Work then began in days and took only months, instead of years. Controversy continues.

And the questions raised about the shipwreck - such as where the craft sailed from and its destination - may never be answered because considerable academic information was lost in the salvage.


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