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Dragon Sea

A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology, And Greed Off the Coast of Vietnam

by Frank Pope

Hardcover, 341 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $25 |


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Dragon Sea
A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology, And Greed Off the Coast of Vietnam
Frank Pope

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Book Summary

Traces the salvage operation of Oxford archaeologist Mensun Bound to recover a sunken trove of fifteenth-century porcelain from the Hoi An shipwreck hundreds of miles beneath the Dragon Sea, documenting his team's dramatic accomplishment and how it served to revolutionize thinking about Vietnamese ceramics.

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Excerpt: Dragon Sea

The Archeologist
THE FALKLAND ISLANDS were a lonely place in which to grow up, and young Mensun Bound was often left to his own devices. With only a few hundred settlers scattered across Britain’s desolate outpost in the South Atlantic, there were not many other children his age. Whenever the bitter winds and slashing sleet allowed, Mensun would walk over the beaches and low-lying hills, all featureless save for sheltering penguins and windblown huddles of sheep, to sit on the westernmost rocks and watch the sea.
Squinting into the horizon he would imagine topsails appearing, followed by mainsails and a dark hull, and fantasize about life on board the square-riggers during the Great Age of Sail, the era of exploration, discovery, and adventure. The slate-gray waves were the perfect backdrop for his daydreams as they rolled in from the storms of Cape Horn, some three hundred miles to the southwest, and heaved themselves onto the rocks. Such storms had delivered hundreds of ships onto the island’s shores. Some, like the weather-bleached remains of the Charles Cooper that dominated the view from his bedroom window, had been so battered by the Horn that their crews had hauled the leaking hulls up on shore and deserted them. Others had met more dramatic fates and were commemorated by the crosses that scarred the region’s maritime charts.
 In the evenings by a peat fire, Mensun’s father would tell tales of shipwrecks and marooned mariners. Mensun’s ancestors had been among the first settlers on the islands, drawn by a desire for a Spartan life, close to the elements and away from people. They hadn’t been disappointed. In the words of Robert Fitzroy, the captain of Charles Darwin’s ship the Beagle, “a region more exposed to storms both in summer and winter it would be difficult to mention.” There was no television, no radio; the only contact with the outside world came with the arrival of the supply boat every four or five weeks. Among the luxuries it brought were magazines—National Geographic and History Today—which Mensun scoured for stories involving the sea.
 The South Atlantic permeated every aspect of life on the islands, providing the people with food, work, and contact with the outside world. It also isolated them. As a result, when Mensun was eleven he had to be sent to the mainland to attend school. Relations between the Falklands and their closest mainland neighbor, Argentina, were strained. The South American nation contested Britain’s ownership of the islands, so Mensun was sent farther north to the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo. He thrived in the cosmopolitan city, becoming something of a bohemian artist, growing his hair long while nurturing a mounting wanderlust. As soon as he returned to the islands, his school years over, he knew it was time to leave again. Convinced that he was destined for a life at sea, Mensun got himself the only job he could, as the engine-room greaser on a ship, the RMS Darwin. His parents tried hard to dissuade him. The Darwin was a tramp steamer, her itinerary unpredictable, determined only by the destination of her next consignment, and Mensun would be deep in the hull with a grease gun and oilcan for his entire working shift. But his mind was made up: He wanted to wander free across the oceans and into exotic South American ports, seeking to share the experience of the sailors who’d braved Cape Horn before him.
 Mensun’s parents need not have worried about losing their son to the engine room. After a year on board, with the vessel moored in the Straits of Magellan, he abandoned ship. Life belowdecks hadn’t matched his fantasies of adventure on the high seas. The romantic world of Hornblower was gone, he realized. With only his last paycheck and his duffel bag, he began to hitchhike his way north. Eight months later, in 1971, the Falkland Islander arrived in New York City.
 Having left one of the quietest places on earth less than two years earlier, Mensun now found himself in one of the most frenetic. He reveled in the atmosphere of Greenwich Village, where he began to play bass in a band, absorbing as much as he could of the city’s energy. The influence of the metropolis would stay with him even decades later in the form of his ever-present jeans, unkempt hair, and unusually determined attitude. But for all that Mensun had adopted New York, a big part of him remained a Falkland Islander. He often felt out of step with the world, as if he had been born in the wrong era. As a result, whenever modern life got to be too much he would retreat into books about the past, immersed in a world that he felt he better understood.
 When Mensun decided to go back to school, studying history was a natural choice. His lonely youth and the bookishness it had fostered served him well, and he won a full scholarship to study ancient history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His aesthetic streak found an outlet too. In the lectures he attended Mensun realized that art, and pottery in particular, offered a window into the past. Hollowed stones, wood, and sewn skins were all used as containers by prehistoric cultures, but woven baskets and ceramics were much more suggestive of the people who had made them. Pottery’s durability meant it persisted long after all other artifacts had disintegrated. Fragments of fired bowls dating from as far back as 6500 B.C.E. have been found in Turkey, while figurines and animal models from about 25,000 B.C.E. have been discovered in the Czech Republic. Except among nomads (for whom pottery was too heavy and fragile to be useful) and those who lived where gourds were plentiful (negating the need for artificial containers), most cultures used pottery in some form. By the time Mensun had progressed from examining the evolution of amphora handle shapes to the painted scenes on Greek glazed pots, he realized he had discovered a passion. He gave up playing bass and took a position as a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Mensun found he could lose himself in ancient history through studying pottery in a way he never could simply by reading about it. The earliest sophisticated ceramics were made by the Greeks. At first they had depicted figures in black against the red ocher of the clay, but sometime around 530 B.C.E. they began to reverse this, painting the background black and leaving the figures red. This meant that the artist was painting with shadow, not light, allowing the figures—usually naked—to be rendered with lifelike accuracy. Beautifully painted characters played out stories of Achilles’s victories or of cavorting satyrs; Mensun delighted in translating and interpreting these scenes. The more he studied the pieces, the richer their legends became to him. Soon he could distinguish the styles of many painters, such as Kleitias, Pamphaeus, or Epictetus, without needing to look at the signatures with which they adorned their work.
 Mensun found himself at home in the academic life and soon knew he wanted to contribute to it. Much of ancient art had been discovered on archeological digs prior to being displayed in a museum. By studying archeology rather than art history, Mensun felt he could put himself in the front line of the quest for knowledge, interpreting the past when it was first discovered rather than reinterpreting museum pieces and artifacts from established collections. In 1976, at age twenty-three, Mensun graduated with high honors in ancient history and applied for a master’s program at Rutgers that combined classical archeology and art history.
Copyright © 2007 by Frank Pope
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