Shipwrecks and Shark's Fin Soup


I was on holiday when the Smithsonian announced that it would not be hosting the Belitung Shipwreck exhibition last month. Much inked has been spilled, particularly by commentators in Singapore decrying the decision. Here’s a roundup and my take.

Changsha Wares from the Belitung Shipwreck

Changsha Wares from the Belitung Shipwreck

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Sackler Gallery Convenes Advisory Group to Discuss "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds" Exhibition

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A press release from the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution about the Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds exhibition which they were supposed to host next year, but put on hold because of outcries from some archaeologists and cultural heritage experts over the issues of exhibiting artefacts taken from a commercial salvage operation (See here). The exhibition was on display this year at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, and is now in storage.

Sackler Gallery Convenes Advisory Group to Discuss “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” Exhibition
Media Release from the Sackler Gallery, 08 December 2011
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'Shipwrecked' at the Smithsonian postponed due to outcry

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This just in. The New York Times reports that the ‘Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds’ exhibition currently exhibiting at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore has been postponed, til at least 2013, due to concerns over the commercial salvage operation related to the recovery of the cargo. I wonder if the exhibition is going to stay in Singapore for a little longer now?

Shipwrecked Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore

Shipwreck Show Postponed
New York Times, 28 June 2011
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Grave Robbing: Where do we draw the line?


27 June 2006 (Bangkok Post) – Here’s one for potential robust discussion: where is the line between archaeology and tomb raiding?

We often read of new discoveries of tombs or graves found by archaeologists. I would like to know just who gives these people the right to uncover the final resting place of anyone, be it kings, monarchs or any other individual? Where do we draw the line on illegal grave robbers, or opening thousand year old tombs?

If I, or any one today were to die and be buried with a $300,000 [11.5 million baht] ring on our finger, and someone were to dig up our grave and steal the ring, they would be subject to arrest, and a long prison term. So why then, is it okay to rob the graves or tombs of ancients, in the name of archaeology?

Every living being deserves the right to be buried after death, and expect his eternal resting place to be sacred, and not disturbed.

Soi Keow Noi

Must Looted Relics be Ignored?

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2 May 2006 (New York Times) – Not SEA Archaeology, but a broad issue that bears some highlighting. In this part of the world, little has been set up in the protection of artefacts from looting. Most SEA countries don’t even have sufficient legislation to deal with archaeological finds.

Must Looted Relics be Ignored?

Inscribed on Sumerian clay tablets more than 4,000 years ago, the Code of Ur-Nammu may be the earliest known recorded set of laws in the world: dozens of rules written in cuneiform about commerce and taxes, family law and inheritance.

But many scholars won’t go near the one largely intact version of the code, and the top American journal of cuneiform research won’t publish articles about it. The reason? The tablet was bought by a private Norwegian collector on the open market and does not come from a documented, scientific excavation. According to the ethics policies of the leading associations for antiquities scholars, that means it is off limits.As scholars grapple with the reality that a growing number of important works — like the Ur-Nammu tablet and the recently unveiled Gospel of Judas — lack a clear provenance, those ethics policies are the focus of heated debate.

On one side are archaeologists and other experts who say that most objects without a clear record of ownership or site of origin were looted, and that the publication of such material aggrandizes collectors and encourages the illicit trade. On the other side are those who argue that ignoring such works may be even more damaging to scholarship than the destruction caused by looting.