Review: Marine Archaeology in Southeast Asia

Marine Archaeology in Southeast Asia: Innovation and Adaptation.
Heidi Tan (ed.) Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012.
ISBN: 978-981-07-1109-2 (pbk.)
Reviewed by S. T. Foo

Marine Archaeology in Southeast Asia: Innovation and Adaptation is a collection of papers delivered at the Conference on Maritime Archaeology in June 2011. The conference, which was organized by the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, was held in conjunction with the Marina Bay Sands’ ArtScience Museum’s exhibit of the Belitung shipwreck artifacts in “Shipwrecked: Tang Dynasty Treasures and Monsoon Winds.” The Belitung shipwreck exhibition, which was referenced in many chapters of the book, was intended for further exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the Spring of 2012, but was later cancelled in December 2011 after some controversy (Trescott 2011, Smithsonian Institution 2012).

Overall, the book does a good job in communicating and highlighting the high degree of complexity and challenges of doing maritime archaeology in Southeast Asia, and is useful to a layman such as myself, who may be versed with the more common issues of land archaeology in Southeast Asia, but not to those pertaining to underwater sites. The images in the book are in full color and of a very good print quality, and would be useful as an introductory text, for not only does it contribute to the greater discourse on global marine archaeology by providing perspectives from various potential models of public-private partnership, it also considers complementary avenues of research, such as harbors, as a way to trace networks of commerce.

The volume first introduces the context of the Southeast Asia’s maritime past, through the contributions of Kwa Chong Guan and John Miksic. Kwa Chong Guan’s chapter provides a bustling picture of Southeast Asian maritime trade from the 9th to 19th c. through descriptions of major shipwrecks from the South China Sea and Java Sea and provides a good introduction of the material culture for those unfamiliar with the region. While an un-edited version of the article can also be found on the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre Working Papers series (which can be downloaded here), the version that appears in this volume has had its content edited for better clarity. John Miksic’s contribution to the volume on the archaeology of ports in Southeast Asia highlights a multiplicity of sites that still requires adequate investigation and also the need to integrate the study of harbors and ports to the larger study of Southeast Asian maritime history.

The history and legal framework pertaining to underwater heritage management and archaeology were discussed through several country study chapters, specifically through contributions by Bobby Orillaneda on the Philippines; Erbprem Vatcharangkul’s chapter on Thailand; Gatot Ghautama’s chapter on the Indonesian experiences; and Phann Nady’s chapter on the status and challenges for Maritime Archaeology in Cambodia. These contributions tended to focus on whether these countries ratified the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage and the UNCLOS III International Law of the Sea. Of these, Cambodia is the only Southeast Asian nation to ratify the convention (Heng Kamsan 2012); yet it lacks the means to enforce the regulations. The disparity between regulation and enforcement was a common theme that echoed during the country study presentations at the conference, but significantly, Orillaneda’s chapter on the Philippines points out a different public-private partnership involving the public scuba-diving community that could pave the way for a new direction in marine archaeology that does not involve commercial gain, or the division of shipwreck cargo.

Of all the chapters in the book, Michael Flecker’s chapter on the fate of shipwrecks in Southeast Asia is the most pointed, as it was written with specific reference to the Belitung shipwreck controversy; he asked whether there was the luxury of time to even debate the ethics of (legal) commercial salvage operations in Southeast Asia when underwater sites are in danger from lax legal enforcement, local fishermen-turned-treasure-hunters, divers, and deep-sea trawler operations. It is unfortunate that the most vocal opponents to the Belitung shipwreck excavation did not make their voices known at the conference; similarly, their perspectives are not to be found within the book. It should be noted that their concerns over the proper recording and excavation of the site ought to be taken seriously; for their anxiety concerns not only ethical implications, but stems from a longer societal ambivalence with the status of archaeology and archaeologists, as they make an effort to distance themselves as professionals in a respectable profession, doing a public service, from those “treasure hunters,” who may not do the due diligence and gain commercially. The line, however, is not so clear cut; over the last several decades, contract archaeologists in mature developed societies such as those in Australia, Europe, and America have had to straddle this fine line, balancing commercial development interests and heritage management, and one might argue that there is an increasing disconnect and uncertainty between purely academic research and salvage archaeology, and that this controversy merely reflects the growing pains of a maturing profession.

As for the book, it does well to give an alternative viewpoint on public-private partnerships, such as that of the Odyssey Marine commercial archaeology model, as given through the contributions by Sean Kingsley and Ellen C. Girth. While the case studies are not from Southeast Asia, some of the framework may be applicable to the Southeast Asian context, particularly due to the high costs of undertaking an excavation, and the sense of urgency one gets, particularly with regards to the damage from deep-sea trawler operations. It should be noted however that the Odyssey Marine Exploration is a US company has been involved in a few recent legal tussles, particularly in Spain, over artifacts from a Spanish Galleon in the 19th c. (Levesque 2012), and in the United Kingom, over the excavation of HMS Victory (Alberge 2012). The last chapter by Bill Jeffrey and Robert Parthesius, is also a significant contribution to the field as it reflects on capacity building for implementing maritime underwater cultural heritage programs in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Micronesia, and how it might be applicable to the Southeast Asian region.

S. T. Foo (stfoo[at]iseas.edu.sg) is a Research Associate at the Archaeology Unit of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. She attended the Conference on Maritime Archaeology in June 2011 as an observer, and in May 2012, helped to facilitate a symposium on Southeast Asian Underwater Archaeology at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

References

Alberge, D., 2012. “Archaeologists accuse MoD of allowing US company to ‘plunder’ shipwreck.” The Observer, 6th May, 2012. Last retrieved 13th Jun., 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/may/06/hms-victory-shipwreck-odyssey-excavation

Heng Kamsan, 2012. “Overview of Underwater Cultural Heritage in the Kingdom of Cambodia.” Paper given at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies on 31st May, 2012.

Levesque, W. R., 2012. “Exploration leaves MacDill Air Force Base for Spain.” Tampa Bay Times, 25th Feb., 2012. Last retrieved 13th Jun., 2012, from http://www.tampabay.com/news/military/macdill/treasure-salvaged-by-odyssey-marine-exploration-leaves-macdill-air-force/1216934

Smithsonian Institution, 2012. “The Belitung Excavation.” Last retrieved 14th Jun., 2012, from http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/SW-CulturalHeritage/excavation.asp

Trescott, J., 2011. “Sackler Gallery cancels controversial exhibit of Tang dynasty treasures from shipwreck.” The Washington Post. Dec. 16, 2011. Last retrieved 13th Jun., 2012, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/sackler-gallery-cancels-controversial-exhibit-of-tang-dynasty-treasures-from-shipwreck/2011/12/15/gIQAnlyjwO_story.html

Further Reading
The entire “Shipwrecked: Tang Dynasty Treasures” exhibition catalogue can be viewed online, here: https://www.asia.si.edu/Shipwrecked/catalogue.asp

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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.

4 thoughts on “Review: Marine Archaeology in Southeast Asia”

  1. I’d be interested in buying this book but I can’t find it online, not even on the website of the Asian Civilizations Museum. Any tips? 

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