UNESCO Director-General expresses concern over Indonesian shipwreck sale

Director-general of Unesco Irina Bokova issued a press statement expressing concern over the loss to scholars and the public over the wholesale auction of the Cirebon shipwreck, which failed to auction on Wednesday after failing to receive any bids.


UNESCO Director-General concerned by possible dispersion of objects from 10th century sunken ship in Indonesia

UNESCOPRESS, 06 May 2010

UNESCO chief concerned by auction of ancient artifacts
Jakarta Post, 06 May 2010

The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, expressed concern about negotiations to sell a large number of artefacts salvaged from the wreck of a 10th century ship lying off the coast of Java (Indonesia). The sale of the cargo by the Indonesian government was originally set for today 5 May in Jakarta but it was postponed for lack of a buyer.

“It would be unfortunate to allow heritage of such historical and archaeological value to be scattered, thereby depriving both scientists and the general public of access to an exceptional collection. Exploiting an archaeological site and dispersing its artefacts is an irreversible process. Yet the contents of the shipwreck found off the coast of the city of Cirebon have much to tell us about cultural and commercial exchanges in the region at that time,” said Ms Bokova. “UNESCO, through its 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, urges States to safeguard sunken heritage and to make it available for scientific study and public enjoyment. We therefore encourage the Indonesian government to make every effort to ensure that thorough scientific examination of the site is carried out and the artefacts are presented in museums. Evidently UNESCO stands ready to lend its expertise in museology and conservation to the Indonesian authorities.”

Located by a private exploration company in 2004 off the coast of Cirebon in northern Java, the ship is thought to have foundered in the 10th century as it sailed to Java from Sumatra. More than 270,000 artefacts (Chinese ceramics, religious objects, jewellery, gold coins, pottery etc) were salvaged from the wreck, giving the discovery exceptional historical value. In 2007, a mission of experts from UNESCO visited the site where the finds are stored. The experts underlined their historical importance and the need to conserve them in suitable conditions. They offered to help the Indonesian government preserve the artefacts, which are particularly fragile when they are brought out of the water.

The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 2001, entered into force in January 2009. It aims to ensure better protection of underwater wrecks and ruins. The treaty represents the international community’s response to the increase in looting and destruction of underwater cultural heritage, which technological progress has placed within the reach of treasure hunters.

The Convention is based on four principles: the obligation to preserve underwater cultural heritage; in situ preservation, i.e. underwater, as a preferred option; no commercial exploitation of artefacts; and cooperation by States on protecting this heritage, promoting training in underwater archaeology and raising public awareness. The Convention’s Annex contains practical rules concerning activities directed at underwater cultural heritage.

The Convention currently numbers 31 States Parties. UNESCO hopes that Indonesia will ratify the Convention and offers its assistance to facilitate the process.


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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