AIA’s Formal Statement on the Belitung Shipwreck & the Smithsonian

Previously, I posted on the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian’s exhibit of materials looted from the Belitung Shipwreck. You can read those articles here:

Museums & Looted Antiquities: Conflict at the Smithsonian

Museums & Looted Antiquities – the Smithsonian

Recently, the American Institute of Archaeology (AIA) has issued a formal statement opposing the Smithsonian’s display of these artifacts.  I have included the statement in its entirety below. You can also read it in its entirety here.

As the largest and oldest organization devoted to archaeology in North America, the Archaeological Institute of America is committed to the protection of the world’s cultural heritage. As part of this commitment we strongly oppose the commercial salvage of antiquities and any exploitation of archaeological materials obtained in this manner.

The Belitung Shipwreck was salvaged unscientifically by commercially-motivated treasure hunters. Although the excavation and disposition of these materials may be technically “legal,” it is the AIA’s position that involvement by the Smithsonian Institution in the exhibition of these artifacts will serve to blur the distinction between bona fide nautical archaeology and treasure hunting. Following this path puts the Smithsonian in the indefensible position of aiding those who believe that antiquities are a commodity to be mined for personal or corporate financial gain. They are not—they are part of the world’s cultural patrimony.

As the premier museum of the United States and the largest museum and research institution in the world, the Smithsonian is a model for others and should endorse the highest ethical standards for American archaeological and museological practice. The AIA urges the Smithsonian’s leadership to heed the voices of archaeologists worldwide—including many within its own walls—in cancelling the plans for any exhibition of the Belitung shipwreck and its artifacts. To proceed with plans to display these objects will increase the risk to other equally valuable shipwrecks that have yet to be discovered.

Elizabeth Bartman
President, AIA




5 thoughts on “AIA’s Formal Statement on the Belitung Shipwreck & the Smithsonian

  1. Pingback: Smithsonian Postpones Beltung Exhibit in the Midst of Controversy « jenniferlockett


    Ms Elizabeth Bartman,

    You turn a blind eye to the truth of underwater archaeology in South-East Asia.

    Without the commercial salvage, what do you think will be left from this Tang wreck ?

    The truth is because of the commercial salvage, the Tang treasures are preserved.

    As President of AIA what can you contribute to preserve the important artifacts of Asia ?

    In my frank opinion, you should use your capacity to stop the British Museum and many others in the world to exhibit many of their stolen artifacts.Or perhaps insist that they should return the stolen items to the country of origins.

    As you said :’Archaeological Institute of America is committed to the protection of the world’s cultural heritage.’ How ? By rejecting commercial salvage and ‘allowing’ looting ? How about seek funding to salvage all the important wrecks in Asia ?

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Yes, the issue of looting and salvage is a tricky one and there are many different issues at play. I can see the overall benefits and issues on both sides, on the on hand, you are right that there is not enough money and resources for academic excavations of all sites and legitimate commercial salvage can maintain the integrity of the material and make it available to people around the world. However, the commercial success of salvage and supporting the sale of antiquities can promote less… savory… legitimate means of acquiring goods. To be honest, I don’t know if there is a clear cut answer to the issue of salvage and looting.
      Thank you for your thoughts and contributing. You are right that the AIA has largely remained mute on controversial ownership, such as the Parthenon Marbles. It is interesting that they elected this scenario in which to address the issue of looting and salvage. I suspect that it indicates a significant change in their policies, but we shall see.

    2. Peter Wagner

      By Prof. H. Mair about the work of Seabed Explorations and Tilman Walterfang
      The Belitung Tea Bowl in the Eyes of an American Scholar

      It is difficult for me to comprehend the objections that have been voiced against the exhibition of artifacts from the Belitung shipwreck. The educational and historical value of the collection is simply enormous, and those who have called for the cancellation of the exhibition are, in effect and in fact, denying access to the wealth of information embodied in the Belitung shipwreck, both to the lay public and to qualified researchers.
      As a remarkable case in point, I may mention the now famous bowl with the inscription chazhanzi (“tea bowl”) that I learned of only a month or so before the completion of the book entitled The True History of Tea written by myself and Erling Hoh. The Belitung tea bowl constitutes the single most important and solid datum for the history of tea in the Tang period and arguably for the history of tea in general. So vital is this unique object from the Belitung shipwreck that it became the thematic logo for our entire book, yet it is only one out of roughly 60,000 artifacts preserved and conserved by the excavators. I shudder to think that, were it not for the swift, yet rigorous and careful, actions of the excavators, this inestimably precious artifact might well have been lost forever to the depredations of callous looting and the vagaries of ocean currents. When we multiply the significance of this one bowl several thousand-fold, we can get a sense of the diminution that would have resulted if the Belitung shipwreck had not been rescued by the decisive actions of the excavators. Consequently, it should be obvious that the detriment to human understanding of the past would be of incalculably tragic proportions.

      Victor H. Mair
      University of Pennsylvania


    A link to Hunan Provincial Museum website, showing a typical Changsha bowl and the chazhanzi (茶盏子)tea bowl mentioned above by Professor Victor H. Mair of University of Pennsylvania:

    Among the Changsha bowls, there are the earliest under glazed copper red and non- cobalt blue yet to be analyzed; the only 3 intact Tang blue and white ceramic found in the world; the green splashed cup with built-in spout which was never seen before…….just to name a few of the incredible Tang Belitung wreck.


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