Smithsonian Gets Flack Over Commercially Mined Shipwreck Artifacts

Ok, so we’ve all had the fantasy of recovering rare and historical artifacts in a rogueish and debonair manner a la Indiana Jones or that character Nicholas Cage played in American Treasure (just go with me on this). But it turns out that such thrilling non-academic excavation is considered a HUGE breech of ethics in the archeological/museum community.

Case in point: Singapore’s traveling exhibition Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds is a historically and culturally significant collection of objects commercially salvaged from an Arab ship that sank in 800 AD. Filled with Tang Dynasty vessels, the ship’s contents indicate a previously unknown sea trade between China and the Arab world. But many do not want the Smithsonian to bring this exhibition to the states, as it had planned to do in the spring of 2012.

From The New York Times:

n an April 5 letter to the top official at the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, a group of archaeologists and anthropologists from the National Academy of Sciences — including Robert McCormick Adams, a former leader of the Smithsonian — wrote that proceeding with the exhibition would “severely damage the stature and reputation” of the institution.

The members of the National Academy of Sciences are not alone. In recent weeks organizations including the Society for American Archaeology, the Council of American Maritime Museums and the International Committee for Underwater Cultural Heritage, as well as groups within the Smithsonian, including the members of the anthropology department and the Senate of Scientists at its National Museum of Natural History, have urged Mr. Clough to reconsider.

… in the eyes of archaeologists like James P. Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at the United States Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, allowing any of the finds from an excavation to be sold betrays the most basic aspects of research, in which “sometimes it’s the smallest things that we come back to that make the great leaps forward.”

Mr. Delgado said he wished the Belitung shipwreck had been academically excavated. But unlike some of his colleagues, he said that instead of canceling the exhibition, the Smithsonian could use it to educate the public about the consequences of the commercialization of underwater heritage.


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