Indonesia’s uncharted History

Indonesia — a sprawling archipelago nation straddling the equator — 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, packed with everything from 9th century ceramics and imperial-quality gold boxes to exquisite jewels, funeral urns and inkwells, can bring in tens of millions of dollars. That has created a small, lively industry for fishermen, who are often the discoverers of the wrecks. Those that aren’t immediately looted have been sold to commercial salvage companies, which pull up the cargo as quickly as possible and 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 of the sea 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, who has helped catalog artifacts and shipbuilding techniques for both the government and salvage crews. “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.” With tens of thousands of artifacts already handed over, Indonesian museums should by now be richly stocked. Instead, shelves are all but bare. The most exquisite pieces have “disappeared.”

And those of little or no monetary value are in musty warehouses, closed to the public. Pictures remain on disk drives and painstaking research goes unpublished. “In the end, all the artifacts, everything you put into data-basing,” said Liebner, “it’s just for nothing in this country, it seems. No one cares.”

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