via International Journal of Heritage Studies, 20 November 2023: The paper by Natali Pearson explores the Belitung shipwreck, emphasizing the interconnectedness of natural and cultural heritage, especially in maritime contexts. It challenges the traditional separation of these realms, using the Belitung’s transformation from ship to wreck to reef as a case study. The article argues for a multispecies, ocean-centric approach to heritage, reflecting on the shipwreck’s role in both human history and marine ecosystems. This perspective aligns with the call for more inclusive ontologies in heritage studies, recognizing the agency of non-human entities and the dynamic relationships between cultural artifacts and their environments.
In an era of species extinction, ecological destruction and uncertain futures, the separation of nature and culture within conceptualisations of heritage has become increasingly untenable. Although the limitations – and even damage – caused by the separation of these ontological categories is widely accepted within heritage studies, scholarly interventions calling for more connected ontologies are commonly framed within the context of the terrestrial. This article departs from these terra-centric approaches to instead consider the potential of an oceanic imaginary to problematise and even dismantle these dualist categories. With a specific focus on the Belitung, an ancient shipwreck found in Indonesian waters, this paper dwells on the wreck’s submerged interlude between loss and discovery. It considers the impact of this millennia-long extended period underwater in terms of marine ecosystems and more-than-human growth and destruction. By attending to the process by which ship becomes wreck becomes reef, this article thus draws necessary attention to the ways in which wreck becomes heritage, thus offering insights into how values are ascribed to underwater cultural heritage, and how this both perpetuates, and disrupts, the nature-culture binary.