Treasures of the Java Sea

Cirebon Coast shipwreck

Cirebon is a medium sized city with a population of 0.3 Million on the island of 'Java' in the Indonesian archipelago. The only fact of historical significance or importance about this town is that it was an independent state under the control of a Sultan. This Sultan gave up his independence in 1705 to become a vassal or a feudatory king under the Dutch colonists and Cirebon's independent existence came to an end. After Indonesia became independent from the Dutch, this city became part of Indonesia. Even though Cirebon has no historical significance, it is a town of great geographical significance because of it's strategic location. Right from historical times, enormous volume of shipping traffic has been passing near it's coast. In ancient days, Cirebon was an important mercantile harbour for trade between middle east, India, Java, Sumatra and China.

About a decade ago, some fishermen found out about an ancient shipwreck in the Java Sea off the town of Cirebon. They reported the matter to Indonesian authorities. However, lacking necessary salvaging equipments and also due to paucity of funds, the Indonesian Government was not able to take up any steps regarding any salvaging operation on the shipwreck. A Belgian treasure hunter specializing in salvaging the treasures on such old shipwrecks, Luc Heymans came to know about the shipwreck. His company Cosmix Underwater Research Ltd; and his Indonesian partners, Paradigma Putra Sejathera PT, made a joint offer to the Indonesian Government about salvaging the shipwreck. Indonesian Government responded positively and an agreement was signed in due course. According to this agreement, Luc Heymans's company was allowed to survey the sea bottom at that point and take out any valuables found near the shipwreck. From the salvaged valuables, if any items, which could be considered as Indonesia,s national heritage, are found ,those would be kept by the Government. The balance materials that are salvaged could be sold by Luc's company and profits would be shared on equal basis. Indonesian Government issued necessary permits to Luc's company.

Luc Heymans collected about 10 Million US$ from his investors in US and started his search operations at the site of the shipwreck. The wreck was spread at a depth of 45 meters over a 40 meter square area on the sea bottom. Luc Heymans says that at the shipwreck site, they found no remnant broken down wooden planks or pieces of the ship itself, but only a mountain of broken chinaware. A french deep sea diver, Daniel Visnikar, employed by Luc, says that on the second day of the hunt, he found a golden dagger hilt, under a chinaware scrap heap that was 1 foot high. Between February 2004 to October 2005, Luc Heymans and his team consisting of 13 deep sea divers (3 Australian, 2 British, 3 French, 3 Belgian, 2 German) found an unbelievable quantity of two hundred and fifty thousand pieces of rare Chinaware like jars, plates and bowls made in the tenth century, precious jewels and other valuable items. To salvage these items, Luc Heyman''s team made in all, about 22000 to 24000 deep sea dives. Since the Chinaware was found to be made in tenth century CE, it was obvious that the ship was wrecked around that time only. The archeologists were able to confirm from this find that substantial trade was being carried out between China, Java, Sumatra, India and Egypt by this sea route as early as tenth century. Since the ship manufactured from wood was underwater for more than 1000 years, the wood had completely rotted and decayed away and not a single speck of wood was found anywhere at the shipwreck site. What was left was the chinaware and items made from bronze and gold.

The precious cargo being carried by the ship and now salvaged from the bottom of the sea, contained many valuable items like Chinaware from the times of Liao dynasty rule in China ( 907-1125 CE ) and Five dynasties period (907-960 CE). There were chinaware plates with polished edges and having pictures of birds and dragons, plates with greenish colour, teapots with lotus motif and a large vase. The cargo also contained, famed Persian glassware and Egyptian quartz-ware. Besides this, 11000 pearls, 4000 rubies, 400 dark red coloured sapphires and 2200 garnets were also found. Luc and his team numbered each and every item together with information as to which part of the site these were found. They also prepared a DVD giving all these details along with photographs of all items and have handed over this DVD to Indonesian authorities.

Luc Heymans says that salvaging the valuables from the sea bottom was the easiest part of the whole operation. His problems were all caused by other humans. When it was known that Luc Haymans team has located the treasures, divers from some other company suddenly appeared at the site. It took lot of effort to call police and prevent others from salvaging the treasures. In spite of having all permissions and licenses in hand. 2 divers from Luc's team were arrested by Indonesian Navy and put in jail. It took quite an effort to get them released.

As per the agreement with the Indonesian Government Luc Heymans is allowed to auction and subsequent export of the valuables from the wreck. However it was found out by the Government later, that there were no laws in Indonesia, that could deal with exploration and export of such shipwreck treasures. Because of the red tape and procedural delays the treasures have been lying in a warehouse.

Finally in the middle of 2010 an auction of the valuables was finally announced. Indonesian Government expected a price of 80 Million Dollars for the valuables. As per terms of the auction, a security deposit of 16 Million Dollars was required from the bidders. Finding these terms unacceptable, no bidders turned up at the day of auction and the entire auction plan turned into a fiasco.

Luc Haymans and his investors have invested lot of money in this operation and can only hope now that at least during next auction, someone or a museum from some country of the world, would bid for the valuables. 
Belitung Shipwreck

Belitung is a small island located in Java sea, famous for its picturesque beaches. In a map, you can see it just north of Java island and approximately northeast of the southern tip of Sumatra island. The shipping traffic that sails through Sunda Straits and going towards South China Sea, passes along the west coastline of this island. In 1998, fishermen searching for sea cucumbers on this coastline discovered an ancient shipwreck here. The wreck found at a depth of about 51 feet was in shallow waters near the coastline and therefor was very vulnerable to looting and accidental damage because of the fishing activity. Because of this reason, Indonesian Government soon authorized the salvaging operation and entrusted this job to a German company. 

A Replica of the sunken ship

Even though this salvaging company, appointed few archeologists to record the details of the site, the ship and the contents, it is believed that the job was not done professionally enough and commercial angle was given more importance than recording the historical significance. The salvaging company salvaged all the valuables from the ship and found a staggering number of more than 60,000 individual items mostly consisting of chinaware, gold and silver objects besides few personal items. From the position of the shipwreck, it was generally believed that the ship had began the voyage from some southern port of China and had passed through Singapore and was travelling towards Sunda straits to proceed to Indian ocean to reach its destination in the middle east. The company, which did salvaging, were luckier than Luc Haymans company, described in Part I, as Singapore government got interested in the historical significance of the cargo and bought off the salavged items in one lot for 40 Million Dollars. The priceless cargo is now exhibited in the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore and is well worth a visit.

A gold cup with figures of musicians 

A pair of gold bowls

A pair of square gold dishes 

 A Gold dish, bracelet and a bowl

 A silver flask

The ship was constructed from wooden planks sewn together as was the practice of those days in the Persian gulf. It was obvious that the ship owners were from west Asia. The analysis showed that the wood for the ship mostly came from Africa with some additions made with native Indian and south east Asian woods. On one of the bowls found in the shipwreck, a date corresponding to year 826 CE was found inscribed. In addition, the chinaware found in the wreck has distinct characteristics of chinaware produced during Tang dynasty rule in China. From these two facts, the year of the shipwreck is believed to be around year 830 CE. This shipwreck therefor was considered as the first and the most important proof of the heavy volume of trade in ceramics that took place between China and Abbasid empire of west Asia with its capital in Baghdad. Besides ceramics, number of items crafted in gold and silver also were salvaged. All these goods prove the amount of cultural and trade exchanges between east and west more that 1100 years ago.
 A collection of ceramic plates with exquisite designs
 Ceramic Ewar and a stopper

Storage jars

Ceramic objects from China, Tang period 

More ceramic pots 

We may never know, where the ship was actually headed? Whether it chose the sea route through Sunda straits, to avid rampant piracy in Malacca straits of those days? Or was it headed for Java to unload some cargo or pick up new crew? We can only infer that huge international trading activity went on even during those days and the craze for imported goodies is something that we have inherited since a long time.
Mentawai Shipwrecks
Mentawai are a group of islands on the west side of the island of Sumatra. Over an year ago, these islands were the first to face the slamming by the giant Tsunami wave that eventually battered Indonesian island of Sumatra. The giant Tsunami wave pushed into view, 4 shipwrecks near the coastline of Mentawai islands. One of the shipwrecks is now in just 20 feet of water. National Committee of Underwater Heritage, made up of representatives from 15 ministries and government bodies of Government of Indonesia says that these four wrecks are part of a huge number of 463 wrecks, that have been discovered off Indonesia coast. International experts, referring to documents about missing ships from China and other countries, believe that actual number of ships lying on the ocean floor is in the order of ten thousand.
Most of these ships that went down were laden with precious cargo just like the Cirebon and Belitung shipwrecks that we have seen in Part I and Part II of this series of articles. Like these two shipwrecks, the ships, not yet salvaged, are likely to be loaded with valuables such as 9th century ceramics,imperial-quality gold boxes , exquisite jewels, funeral urns and inkwells. If salvaged and sold, they can bring in of millions of dollars for Indonesia.
The Mentawai shipwreck, for example, is of a ship that belonged to Dutch East India company and the tidbits that have been found by enterprising fishermen around the wreck, include broken pieces of blue-and-white ceramics, a tiny perfume bottle, a sword handle and broken wine flasks, one of which is still sealed with a wooden cork. 
Fishermen have located some bronze cannons and anchor of the ship. Government maritime officials in Mentawai, are trying to protect the shipwrecks from poachers and fishermen, who want to break into the wrecks, as no clear Government policy about the issue is forthcoming. As things stand now, salvage operations are all stopped. Indonesian Government earned very little in the Belitung shipwreck and as a result further salvaging work was stopped. Considerable political wrangling is going on now in Jakarta to sort out the issue.
The major issues here, that are now being debated, are the serious objections raised by marine archeologists regarding this whole concept of salvaging shipwrecks for commercial gains. Archeologists feel that salvagers are recovering only things that are monetarily valuable, and that might represent just a small percentage of the entire collection of artifacts on the wreck. The salvagers may open the shipwrecks by blasting through or by breaking down historically or archaeologically important artifacts.
The case of the Belitung shipwreck is being presented by Indonesian Government as a sample case. Out of 40 Million Dollars paid by Singapore, Indonesian Government got only 2.8 Million and a number of artifacts, not wanted by Singapore. They feel that they have received a raw deal. Indonesia also has not yet adopted the 2001 U.N. convention on protecting underwater cultural heritage though in 2010 it passed a law protecting underwater cultural heritage. No rules or guidelines have been yet framed.
Many archeologists feel that commercial exploitation of the shipwrecks and the publicity given is creating an unnecessary demand worldwide for shipwreck artifacts. Because of this criticism, Smithsonian Institution from Washington D.C. cancelled their proposed exhibition of Belitung shipwreck artifacts. Many believe that museums should not display these items at all.
As the controversy rages, salvaging companies justify their operations by saying that otherwise the artifacts would be just looted and all information would be gone forever. If the commercial angle is lost, not many would be willing to salvage the artifacts. Meanwhile Millions of Dollars worth artifacts are just lying on the sea bed in need of protection.

1 comment:

    This Note first examines the 2001 Convention's practical effects on both the recovery of underwater cultural heritage in general and the artifacts recovered from the Belitung Shipwreck in particular. Next, it demonstrates that Indonesia did everything it reasonably could to preserve the Belitung Shipwreck, and that its actions largely adhered to the Convention's spirit and requirements. Finally, it argues that the Convention could better achieve its goals if it contained a definition of "commercial exploitation" that permitted States to responsibly utilize private salvage companies, rather than abiding by the restrictive rule favored by academic archaeologists.
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