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Treasure hunting on shipwrecks sounds romantic but raises ethical questions. The Smithsonian Institution is under fire for planning to show artifacts that were recovered or possibly looted off the coast of Indonesia. Critics are calling for the Smithsonian to cancel that show.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: There are a lot of differences of opinion in this story but one thing most everyone agrees on: The discovery of this ancient vessel was extremely important.

Dr. JAMES DELGADO (Director, Maritime Heritage Program, NOAA): This shipwreck is one of the most significant shipwrecks to be found in modern times.

BLAIR: James Delgado is a nautical archaeologist with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dr. DELGADO: It is the only shipwreck to date that we have found, which is direct archaeological evidence of trade between the Arab world and the Chinese world.

BLAIR: The vessel, believed to be made in the Middle East, was packed with objects from China's Tang Dynasty. And many of those objects are now in the exhibition "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds," currently in Singapore. There's a promotional video for it on the Smithsonian's website.

(Soundbite of Smithsonian Institution video)

Unidentified Man: It was a ninth century Arab dhow filled with tens of thousands of ceramics and a treasure trove of silver and gold.

BLAIR: Like many of the shipwrecks in Southeast Asia, this one was discovered by fishermen diving for sea cucumbers. And because the Indonesian government does little to regulate treasure hunting, they began looting the site, which included valuable Chinese ceramics.

Michael Flecker is a marine archaeologist who's been working in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years.

Dr. MICHAEL FLECKER (Managing Director, Maritime Explorations): To sell ceramics from a wreck like that makes them a hell of a lot more than selling sea cucumbers.

BLAIR: Artifacts turned up on eBay. Eventually the Indonesian government took control by hiring a German commercial salvage company. That company hired two archaeologists including Michael Flecker.

The German company sold the bulk of the cargo to the Singapore government for $32 million. Among other things, Indonesia got some of the recovered artifacts and $2.5 million in cash.

But here's the problem. The Smithsonian is a member of the Council of American Maritime Museums. Its ethics statement says that members: Shall not knowingly exhibit artifacts which have been stolen or removed from commercially exploited sites.

Kimberly Faulk, of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, says the Smithsonian should not show these objects.

Ms. KIMBERLY FAULK (Vice Chairwoman, Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology): They were not excavated properly. They are indeed looted artifacts that were sold for profit. And by displaying them, the Smithsonian not only violates its own ethics statements, but as a pillar in the community of museums and archaeology, it sends a message that treasure hunting is okay.

BLAIR: But Julian Raby, of the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries, says the artifacts in the show were recovered by the German company, not the looters.

Dr. JULIAN RABY (Director, Freer and Sackler Galleries): This hasn't either been pillaged or looted; it was actually legally licensed salvage.

BLAIR: But archaeologists, says Faulk, excavate for the purpose of knowledge, not profit. James Delgado says often times that takes years, not the months it took for this operation.

Dr. DELGADO: We archaeologists are like CSI. We walk into the room, we don't touch a thing. We tag everything. We photograph it. And then, and only then, do we start to pick up the evidence. And in the case of this type of evidence, you're moving away centuries or millennia of silt and carefully picking up every fragment.

BLAIR: But Michael Flecker says that is the ideal situation, but not what you find working in Indonesia, where he says the government does not have the means to police the waters. He says the Indonesian government did the best that it could.

Dr. FLECKER: And so the only way of preventing the complete destruction of the wreck with all knowledge lost, is to have, in this case, responsible commercial excavation.

BLAIR: After getting so many complaints, the Smithsonian held a meeting with prominent archaeologists and museum directors from both within and outside the institution. An announcement on whether they will present the show is expected later this month.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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