Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Riches, headaches from shipwrecks

Indonesian bounty divides historians, wealth-seekers.

MENTAWAI ISLANDS, Indonesia - Mamat Evendi straps on his primitive breathing device: a garden hose attached to a compressor on the back of his wooden fishing boat. Pulling down his goggles, he splashes into the crystal blue water.

A few minutes later he's flashing a thumbs-up, pointing first to a massive, coral-encrusted anchor, then a bronze cannon and finally, peeking up from the sand, the buried deck of a 17th-century European ship. Nearby are pieces of blue-and-white ceramics. A tiny perfume bottle. A sword handle. Broken wine flasks, one still corked.

The wreck is just 20 feet underwater, one of four pushed into view after a tsunami slammed into the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia just over a year ago. They are among possibly 10,000 vessels littering the ocean floor of what for more than a millennium has been a crossroads for world trade.

For historians, the wrecks are time capsules, a chance to peer directly into a single day, from the habits of the crew and the early arrival of religion to contemporary tastes in ceramics.


But for Evendi and other fishermen involved in the new discoveries, it's not the past they see. It's the future. A chance to strike it rich.

"They keep telling me, 'Let's just break them open, get the stuff out,' " said Hardimansyah, a local maritime official who has taken it upon himself to protect the wrecks as the government wrangles over a new policy on underwater heritage.

"To be honest, I'm getting frustrated, too," he said, noting he had already given the best artifacts pulled from the coral and sand to military and political officials who stop by his office to see what has been found.

"Gifts," he calls them, or "offerings."

"It's hard to say no if they ask."

Indonesia remains desperately poor despite its vast oil, coal, and gold reserves. Its graveyard of ships from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East - one of the biggest in the world with nearly 500 wrecks identified so far - has long been coveted as yet another resource to exploit.

The most valuable can net tens of millions of dollars.

Piece by piece

That has created a small, lively industry for fishermen, who often discover the wrecks. Those that aren't immediately looted have been sold to commercial salvage companies, which pull up the cargo as quickly as possible, then sell it off piece by piece at international auctions.

The government, which gets 50 percent of all proceeds and half the cargo, decided to wrest greater control over the riches after being left empty-handed following one of the most significant hauls, a 9th-century Arab sailing vessel whose presence pointed to previously unknown trading links between China and the Middle East.

"It's frustrating," said Horst Liebner, an expert on Indonesia's maritime history. "Because in the end, this isn't about the odd treasure chest guarded by an octopus. It's about the knowledge we can gain from proper excavation."

For-profit excavations in the sea are legal in several countries, including Indonesia, that have yet to sign a 2001 U.N. convention on protecting underwater cultural heritage. But they rarely spark the outrage they would if carried out on land.

That's in part because maritime archaeology is a relatively new discipline, developed only after World War II, and neither lawmakers nor the public have kept pace with the technological advances that have turned it from a hobby into a business.

Historians, however, abhor the practice. "They are recovering only things that are monetarily valuable, and that might represent just 1 or 2 percent of the entire artifact assemblage," said Paul F. Johnston of the National Museum of American History in Washington. "Sometimes they blast through, dynamite, or pull apart artifacts that are historically or archaeologically far more important."

Slowly, however, attitudes are changing.


After a chorus of criticism, the Smithsonian Institution said in December that it was canceling a planned exhibition of cargo from the Arab vessel, which was found in 1998.

The German company involved in the excavations pulled up more than 60,000 pieces of China's Tang Dynasty ceramics in just a few months, then sold it to Singapore for $40 million.

Indonesia got $2.8 million - a fraction of what it was owed under its own law - and thousands of artifacts.

Privately, officials were furious. But no one protested, presumably because the deal was linked to under-the-table "gifts" to high-ranking officials, as was common during and just after the collapse of Gen. Suharto's dictatorship.

"I don't think anyone will ever know exactly what happened," Helmi Suriya, director of Underwater Heritage from the Education and Culture Ministry, said with a laugh.

Indonesia has embraced democracy since Suharto's ouster, and in 2010 it passed a law protecting underwater cultural heritage. But guidelines for implementation have been stalled by infighting.

Some officials, including Suriya, say artifacts should stay inside the country, either beneath the water, as favored by UNESCO, or auctioned locally.

Others say, in a graft-ridden country of about 18,000 islands and more than 30,000 miles of coastline, that's unrealistic. Wrecks left where they are will be immediately looted. And no one, least of all the government, will assume the cost or risk excavations without the promise of a big payoff, they say.

So for now, all excavations are on hold.