Sat, Nov 20, 2004 - Page 4 News List

Drama unfolds around sunken treasure ship


In the blue waters of the Java Sea, a drama is unfolding around an ancient cargo of sunken treasure, but with corruption and bureaucracy never far from the surface in Indonesia, the tale owes more to Franz Kafka than Indiana Jones.

A team of divers, among them two Australians, two Britons, two French, a Belgian and a German, has been working for months to excavate a vessel laden with rare ceramics which sank more than 1,000 years ago off Indonesia's shores.

Their finds, including artefacts from China's Five Dynasties period from 907 to 960AD and ancient Egypt, are already causing a stir among archaeologists who say the cargo sheds new light on how ancient merchant routes were forged.

But with items expected to fetch millions of dollars in European auction houses, the work has become embroiled in a murky dispute between the divers and Indonesian authorities over who will profit from the sub-aquatic swag.

According to the divers, the excavation was brought to an abrupt halt last week when an Indonesian navy vessel pulled alongside their diving platform.

"We were taken from the barge and brought back to land. We don't have permission to leave the country or Jakarta," said French diver Daniel Visnikar.

An official report by Indonesia's Agency for the Protection of Underwater Heritage seen by reporters accuses the operation of "employing illegal foreign workers who are excavating precious sunken artefacts."

The divers deny they are acting illegally and insist, despite their run-in with the navy, they were working with the cooperation of the Indonesian government.

"We have all the necessary documents to carry out the diving, which always takes place in the presence of Indonesian government representatives," Visnikar said.

The boat at the centre of the storm rests 54 metres below the surface, approximately 130 nautical miles from Jakarta. Early material recovered from the site has whetted the appetite of overseas experts.

"A 10th century wreck is very rare, there are only a few," said Jean-Paul Desroches, a curator at the Guimet Museum in Paris. He has studied photographs of the findings and describes the artefacts as "extremely interesting."

He says the wreck and its cargo offers clues to how traders using the Silk Road linking China to Europe and the Middle East, used alternative sea routes as China's merchants moved south because of invasions from the north.

"It seems to be one of the largest boats containing ceramics ever found," said Luc Heymans, the "European-funded" project's Belgian director.

He said that according to an official agreement, Indonesia will receive 50 percent of proceeds from the sale of the treasures. He insisted the scheme was legal.

"We have filled all our requirements to Indonesia. They have a complete list of everything that has been extracted from the ship and brought to Jakarta," Heymans said.

Laws governing the protection of Indonesia's antiquities have long been a grey area, with the country's endemic culture of corruption encouraging widespread plunder involving, in many cases, police and military.

It was not possible to check the validity of permits being used by the Java Sea wreck team, but diver Jean-Paul Blancan insists the reason they incurred the navy's wrath is because they used legal instead of corrupt channels.

"We are certainly one of the only teams to have worked completely within the law. That must upset a few people. Here nobody works like that," he said.

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