CHINESE ARTIFACTS IN DOUBT

SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION EXHIBIT OF CHINESE ARTIFACTS IN DOUBT –  TO SHOW OR NOT TO SHOW

SHIPWRECKED: TANG TREASURES AND MONSOON WINDS, an exhibition conceived by the director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the two Asian art museums of the Smithsonian, and by the government of Singapore which owns the artifacts, planned for 2012,  is heavily criticized  by archeologists and anthropologists. The ship which is thought to be Arab, carried rare pottery, silver and gold pieces including the largest gold cup,  from the Tang period (618-907). The shipwreck, discovered by fishermen in 1998 off Belitung Island in Indonesia, was commercially mined within a short period of time – two months – rather than with a more structured archeological  excavation according to academic  methods  that would have taken years.  Critics say that if the exhibition is shown by the Smithsonian,  a network of museums and a research institution, the museum would violate its own  set of professional ethics and promote commercial excavations. A 2011 Unesco convention outlawed the commercial trade in underwater heritage but Indonesia has not ratified it. A German engineer, Tilman Waterfang heard about shipwrecks in Indonesia,  and said according to a NYT article that  his company Seabed Exploration was ordered by the Indonesian government to begin immediate around-the-clock excavation to prevent looting. 
John Guy, Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum, said that  “Sometimes, an event occurs which dramatically enlarges the boundaries of our knowledge…….The discovery of the Tang shipwreck is one such event. This cargo is the most important hoard of Tang artifacts ever discovered at a single site.”   According to wreckwatch.com

This wreck is literally a one-off. The 60,000 Tang-period objects conserved in Indonesia and New Zealand have rightly been described as the most important marine archaeological discovery ever made in Southeast Asia. The ship’s cargo mostly comprised Chinese ceramics from the kilns of Changsha in Hunan, with a small consignment of fine Yue white-and-green-splashed ware. Three blue-and-white dishes are the earliest intact examples of the Chinese style ever found. Large green-glazed jars from Guangdong were used to stow some of the Changsha bowls, as well as perishable goods.

The cargo includes 763 identical inkpots, 915 spice jars and 1,635 ewers apparently made to order in at least five kilns strewn across China. There was nothing provincial about the eclectic cargo, which cleverly catered for the global market – something for everyone. Some objects featured Buddhist lotus symbols and motifs from Central Asia and Persia, while geometric decorations and Koranic inscriptions were clearly geared towards Islamic markets.

What is so original about the Belitung wreck is that this was no bulk-carrying Chinese junk, examples of which are well known. Alongside the mainstream ceramics were exotic wares and gold and gilt-silver vessels, perhaps imperial gifts. A Persian dancer clapping her hands above her head and musicians playing various instruments adorn the largest Tang dynasty gold cup ever discovered. A pair of mandarin ducks decorating a silver flask, symbols of matrimonial harmony, and the repeat presence of pairs of birds, deer and ibexes on other ornamental boxes point towards these exotic gifts being shipped to the Persian Gulf for a royal wedding. An incised Chinese bowl dates the probable year of the voyage to AD 826.

The Smithsonian is expected to make a decision this week  whether to proceed with the exhibit or not. 
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