The most astonishing artifact in the Asian Art Museum’s modest yet provocative “Lost at Sea: Art Recovered From Shipwrecks” is not the fantastically whimsical flying horse on a fragment of 15th-century Vietnamese pottery, or the fierce three-headed stone serpent from the same region that leers at us, some nine centuries after its creation. The really startling item is a nondescript gray mound of once-barnacled stone out of which ceramic boxes randomly protrude, along with shards of pottery, an antler fragment and a carved brick. This jumbled mass, shown inside a vitrine, has been slowly disintegrating during the two decades since its disinterment, revealing an oxidized rust-colored center from which still more relics are being unveiled: a Chinese coin, corroded iron, the remains of sea creatures.
The exhibition, on view as the museum’s major reconfiguration nears its spring completion, is organized by Natasha Reichle, assistant curator of Southeast Asian art, and gently probes the challenging issues raised by the salvage of shipwrecks, taking two examples from the 1990s. Each contained artifacts being transported from central Vietnam. The Hoi An wreck was from the 15th century; the other, of the steamship Le Mei—Kong, from the 19th. the first contained ceramics (yielding more than 250,000 artifacts); the second bore monumental statues taken from ancient ruined temples. The dozen or so works here, including two stone sculptures, were scrupulously restored, scarcely reflecting years underwater.
Lost at Sea: Art Recovered From Shipwrecks
Asian Art Museum
Through March 22
But that mound from the Hoi An wreck (known as a “concretion”) reveals what this pottery had to be rescued from, at great expense and risk. And that has a bearing on the central theme of the exhibition. Questions are posed: “When a shipwreck is found, who owns its contents? The finder, whether it be a fisherman, a salvage company, or a treasure hunter? The state or country in whose waters it was found? The country from which the ship originated? Or the descendants of the people who produced the objects found on board?”
The examples of Vietnamese ceramics shown here, as we learn, were discovered some 230 feet down; three divers had to live for 69 days in a 12-foot-long pressurized chamber or a small diving bell, tied to the surface with umbilical cords as they searched through a half-millennium of detritus. The cost, planning and organizational demands are hinted at, but the book “Dragon Sea,” by one participant, Frank Pope, gives a more extensive picture of this joint enterprise in which an Oxford University archaeological team, a private salvage company, and the Vietnam government tried to accommodate one another’s needs (or not).
In some ways, the project succeeded; in others it failed. The 15th-century dating of the cargo provided evidence for a legendary “golden age” of Vietnamese crafts that excavations at kiln sites had only suggested. Mr. Pope’s account notes that the most significant artifacts were allocated for Vietnamese museums, and then distributed among the participants, with a portion sold to raise funds. He suggests that a disappointing auction led to a lack of funding for the archaeological research along with other losses. The exhibition doesn’t go into enough detail, but it outlines other salvage financing strategies, each with its own difficulties.
Another issue also lies behind the stone statues here, since they were taken from the ruins of Hindu and Buddhist temples built about a thousand years ago by the Cham people who occupied the region before the Vietnamese. When the French invaded in the mid-1800s perhaps 200 temples were already untended ruins. A French doctor removed at least 40 statues and sent them in two steamships to France (where many can still be seen), but one ship sank in Somali waters in 1877. After a 1995 joint venture of a private salvage company, a marine archaeologist, and the Northeast Authority of the Republic of Somalia (then in the midst of a civil war), the wreck was explored. Statues were conserved and auctioned; the two seen here were later donated to the museum.
This case resonates with the questions raised about other artifacts removed from their settings by Western colonial forces. But such acts, far from being unique to Western imperial history, have been historically commonplace: For millennia, conquest, plunder and destruction were inseparable. What was more remarkable in the Western instance is that plunder was so often associated with notions of preservation.
But what about future underwater excavations? While the exhibition is smart, careful and questioning, it also seems to embrace a 2001 Unesco convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage (post-dating the cases here) that affirms an obligation to preserve sites without disruption if possible, suggesting that only qualified archaeologists work on maritime excavations and forbidding discoveries to be “commercially exploited for trade or speculation.”
This is an ideal, no doubt. But the Hoi An case reveals some latent problems. The project required considerable investment beyond the means of Vietnam or academic groups. Moreover, local fisherman had already discovered the pottery and were destroying the site as they raked the bottom, trawling for fish and loot. The hope of profit within a joint project ended up making the exploration possible, while the participants’ competing interests kept it on track, at least for long stretches. Not ideal, perhaps, but little is.
—Mr. Rothstein is the Journal’s Critic at Large.
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8