LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
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.
JAMES DELGADO: 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.
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: Unidentified Man: It was a ninth century Arab dhow filled with tens of thousands of ceramics and a treasure trove of silver and gold.
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BLAIR: Michael Flecker is a marine archaeologist who's been working in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years.
MICHAEL FLECKER: To sell ceramics from a wreck like that makes them a hell of a lot more than selling sea cucumbers.
BLAIR: 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.
WERTHEIMER: Kimberly Faulk, of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, says the Smithsonian should not show these objects.
KIMBERLY FAULK: 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.
JULIAN RABY: 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.
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.
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: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.
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