Smithsonian Shipwreck Exhibit Draws Fire From Archaeologists

Buried at sea. A commercial company salvaged Tang dynasty bowls and thousands of other precious artifacts from a 9th century C.E. shipwreck.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Archaeologists are criticizing the ethics of a planned Smithsonian Institution exhibit, Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, slated to open in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 2012. The exhibit is based on artifacts hauled up from an Arab dhow that sank to the bottom of the Java Sea in the 9th century C.E. The wreck was salvaged by a private German company, Seabed Explorations GbR, in the late 1990s, and critics say that its divers did not observe professional archaeological standards while recovering the artifacts, which include glazed ceramics, lead ingots, and intricately worked vessels of silver and gold from the Tang dynasty. Then in 2005, most of the finds were sold to a second company in Singapore for a reported $32 million. Such commercialization of ancient objects doesn't break the laws of Indonesia, in whose territorial waters the dhow was found, but many archaeologists say that it contravenes their field's standard ethical guidelines.

In recent weeks, three major American archaeological associations and three of the Smithsonian's own internal research organizations have written to Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough strongly opposing the exhibition. "We agree that there was unprofessional and unethical conduct associated with the recovery of this wreck, regardless of the 'letter of the law,' and that at the least, the perception of impropriety and the potential for the Smithsonian's engagement with this project could set a negative precedent and reflect ill on this institution," wrote Melissa Songer, chair of the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars, in her letter.

Underwater archaeologists have been fighting for decades to protect shipwreck sites from treasure-hunting operations that mine sunken ships for artifacts to sell. In 2009, the archaeological community scored a major victory when the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage came into effect. It stated that "underwater cultural heritage shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods."

But Indonesia has not ratified the UNESCO convention. Instead, it licenses private companies, such as Seabed Explorations, to salvage its shipwrecks in return for a 50% share of the profits from selling artifacts. To increase profits, such companies are often tempted to cut corners on important but time-consuming tasks, such as the recording of the archaeological context. In the case of the dhow, notes Ted Schultz, chair of the National Museum of Natural History Senate of Scientists, "We believe that substantial scientific information was lost due to the methods employed."

To discuss these and other concerns about the proposed exhibit, senior Smithsonian officials are planning to convene a blue-ribbon panel of archaeologists and other experts in Washington, D.C., in April. But the meeting has been postponed twice, and some of the invited researchers, such as Margaret Conkey, president of the Society for American Archaeology, wonder if the discussion will be too little, too late. The Smithsonian has already co-organized a world tour of the dhow's artifacts, which opened in a Singapore museum in February, and "it appears that the [exhibit] catalog is already out," Conkey says.

Julian Raby, director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, remains a firm supporter of the exhibit. Seabed Explorations broke no laws during the salvage operation, he says, and had an archaeologist on hand to record details of the ship during the second season. "There are bound to be divergent opinions," Raby says, "and I feel that the Smithsonian should not flinch from controversial exhibitions. It should use controversy to open debate."

But many prominent archaeologists see little to debate. Concludes Bruce Smith, curator of North American history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History: "I think this exhibition would send a very bad message to the public, that the Smithsonian doesn't stand for the preservation of archaeological resources and that mining archaeological sites is OK."