Shipwreck a controversy magnet - now an exhibition at Aga Khan Museum

The Lost Dhow
Only showing in North America. 
Dhow’d that happen?

By Stephen Weir - article in March issue of Diver Magazine

Canada’s newest gallery, the Aga Khan Museum, has just opened a major exhibition about one of the world’s oldest and most controversial underwater archaeological finds  – the 1,200 year-old Belitung Shipwreck.  The exhibition about the ship, The Lost Dhow; A discovery from the Maritime Silk Route, had its North American launch in Toronto in early December instead of a planned debut at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

Pottery lie on the deck of the wreck of the Dhow. photo -Tilman Walterfang

In 1998, the shallow waters off Belitung Island in the western Java Seas yielded what has proven to be the earliest marine archaeological discovery of the century – a wooden ship filled with gold, silver and bronze objects and a staggering 57,500 Chinese ceramic artifacts. The 15-metre long wooden trading vessel has been identified as a 1,200-year-old Arab dhow. 

Two years ago the Freer Sacker Gallery  (the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art) withdrew its commitment to bring the exhibition to the USA because it questioned the manner in which a private company recovered and sold over 60,000 artifacts from the shallow wreck. It accused the recovery team of being more treasure hunters than archaeologists.  So now Toronto is the only North American venue to host the show.

“As far as we can recreate the Belitung wreck was discovered off an island in the west Java Sea by local fishermen diving for sea cucumbers,” said Alan Chong, the director the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore, which now owns the treasures of the Dhow.  “A few of these bowls were taken out and sold locally and local archaeologists working in Indonesia, noticed that these items were being sold and they (eventually) tracked down the wreck.”

A German firm, Seabed Explorations, then received an excavation license from the Indonesian government. That company describes itself as dedicated to the discovery, excavation, conservation and exhibition of artifacts that have been lost in shipwrecks to the seas of Southeast Asia. “Seabed is a commercial enterprise that, in addition to a core team of specialists, employs distinguished scholars, undersea archeologists and restoration experts to assist with the care, management and authentication of finds discovered during our projects.”

Their artifact recovery was completed in 1999 and the collection sold in a single lot for $32 million. The entire findings were then transferred to the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.  That museum, headed up by former Toronto Art Gallery curator Alan Chong worked with the Aga Khan Museum to bring the show to Canada before opening its own permanent exhibition of the treasures back in Singapore soon after the show closes in Toronto on April 26, 2015.

The Smithsonian, once a stronger supporter of the show, “objected to the display of the Belitung cargo, arguing that commercial involvement in shipwreck recoveries can compromise scientific standards of excavation and lead to exploitation of shipwreck sites,” it explained in a press release. 

“Others support the exhibition,” continued the Smithsonian, “contending that public–private partnerships can help prevent loss and dispersal through looting and commercial fishing. Supporters argue that such partnerships are especially valuable in regions like Southeast Asia where underwater cultural heritage needs are great but funds and expertise are scarce”

Recovered pottery on display at the Aga Kan museum -photo George Socka
Seabed has published extensively about the construction of the 1,200-year-old dhow, its cargo and the methods used in recovery the find.  Company owner Tilman Walterfang freely contributed photographs and information about the shipwreck to Diver Magazine.

In talking about the Smithsonian’s comments, Mr. Walterfang bristles at the American accusations of treasure hunting. “We were fully licensed and enjoyed full support of the government. The problem was that the government gave us only 2-weeks to recover the entire cargo. When I explained that it will take years they gave us another six-weeks. That was due to the volatile situation in Indonesia. (The recovery took place) in the year in which the 31-year Suharto Regime fell apart and civil war was raging in various regions of Indonesia. Security couldn't be guaranteed for us and the artifacts (and looting was also a major concern)”

The Smithsonian has modified its stand on the original expedition and has recently called for further scientific research at the wreck site using data from Mr. Walterfang.  Meanwhile The Lost Dhow has been welcomed to Toronto with open arms. It is the first showpiece exhibition in a building privately funded by the Aga Khan Trust For Culture and dedicated to presenting an overview of the artistic, intellectual and scientific contributions that Muslin civilizations have made to world heritage.

“The show really bridges our understanding between China, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. It is really one of the most interesting tales that can be told,” continued Alan Chong. “ We don’t why the dhow was there. This is a great puzzlement; some scholars believe that the ship was dropping off goods in the courts of Java. Other scholars think it was just blown off course. Or was it taking a circuitous route because of pirates in the Malacca Straits? Honestly no one has given a satisfactory answer and no one has any ideas (on how an Arab built ship found its way to China and into the Java Sea).”
Artifacts on display - Photo by Stephen Weir
The exhibition looks at the gold, silver, coins and some of the 57.500 Chinese ceramics brought back to the surface.  The items on display are the first hard evidence of a Maritime Silk Route that saw the exchange of goods, ideas and technologies between The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) in China and the Abbasid Empire (750 – 1258 AD) in Persia.

“ Nearly the entire surviving cargo of the Arab or Indian ship consisted of Chinese ceramics. Some 60,000 pieces have been recovered. The breakage level was particularly low, perhaps twenty per cent, so the original ceramics cargo would have been in the order of 70,000 pieces. The vast majority of the ceramics are in the form of bowls. There are also many large storage jars, but the additional weight of these is offset by many tiny jarlets, “ wrote Mr. Walterfang “Many Chinese coins were recovered.”

The dhow is shown as a small-scale model in a glass cabinet. As well there is an outline of the 15 metres by 6 metres dhow on the floor, to show the actual size of the treasure ship.  Visitors see storage pots as they were seen underwater, covered in 1,200 years of muck and coral and after salvagers had cleaned them up. In Toronto three show stoppers among the 300 items on display. A priceless gold cup, a green splashed ewer and a white ware cup stand are must-sees.

Much of the wreck itself was brought out of the water and will be on display in the new Singapore museum.  However, some of the dhow’s hull is still on the bottom of the Java Sea.  The Smithsonian, in a bit of reversal of its criticism of the Exploration company, now wants scientists to go back to the site and use Mr. Walterfang’s information to study the remains of the ship and conduct more excavation of the site.

The dhow is just one of hundreds of historically significant ships that have been recovered in the patrimonial waters of Indonesia.  “ There are whole sections of southwest Asia that have yet to be investigated let alone in the Indian Ocean. That ocean is of course a much deeper challenge, literally a deeper challenge, for maritime archaeologists,” said Dr Chong. 

SIDEBAR – What is a Dhow?

Model of Dhow  - Aga Khan Museum - photo by George Socka

The Dhow is a traditional one or two masted sailing vessel usually with lateen rigging (slanting, triangular sails) that has been used for two millennia in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

It was constructed of wood.  Boat builders steam-shaped wooden hull planks, roughly 2.5 centimeters thick and between 20 and 50 centimeters wide.  These planks were stitched edge to edge with rope. According to the Aga Khan Museum “wadding was placed under the stitching both inside and outside the hull. A lime-like sealing compound applied to the exterior waterproofed the hull.”


Video talks to Dr Chong about the shipwreck
of the 1,200-year-old dhow
by Stephen Weir and George Socka for Diver Magazine

DIVER MAGAZINE talked to Dr Alan Chong, the head of the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore about underwater archaeology and shipwrecks in the Java Sea.  Alan Chong is a former Toronto Art Gallery curator.  That interview can be seen in a short YouTube video at:


Popular posts from this blog

Believe it Or Not Toronto will soon have a Ripley's Aquarium

Art Exhibition Opening Trifecta! Sunday Afternoon in PAMA