Sun, 18 Jun 2000

Looting of artifacts in Indonesian seas creates big headache

By Rita A. Widiadana

JAKARTA (JP): The latest frenzy concerning the discoveries, excavations and lootings of antique Chinese ceramics and old artifacts in Indonesia's waters have worried Indonesian archaeologists and ceramicists.

Thousands of priceless ceramic pieces, untouched and hidden in shipwrecks for centuries in Indonesian waters, have been salvaged and looted by fortune hunters over the last few years.

The Riau, Bangka and Belitung waters in Sumatra, Cirebon and Banten in West Java; Jepara in Central Java, Tuban and Gilimanuk in East Java; Bali, Halmahera and Tidore in Maluku, Flores in East Nusa Tenggara; as well as Ujungkrawang and Blanakan in West Java were home to ancient Chinese, European and Southeast Asian ceramics and, most probably, gold bars, silver and other valuable items.

Sumarah Adhiyatman, chairwoman of the Indonesian Ceramics Society, says that all the excavated ceramics must be saved first for scientific studies.

"The majority of salvage companies operating in Indonesia only search for underwater treasures to make money and rarely think about the scientific and historical value of each items," Sumarah noted.

She went on to say that since the Dutch Colonial period, it was believed that many vessels and warships which belonged to Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and European traders or army troops whose ships sank in Indonesian waters brought with them precious ceramics, gemstones, weapons and other trade commodities.

No one dared to start exploring these hidden treasures until British-born captain Michael Hatcher shocked the world with his tremendous discoveries taken from the Dutch shipwrecked Geldermalsen in Riau, Sumatra in l986.

Hatcher succeeded in pocketing US$16 million from the sale of 16,000 Chinese ceramic pieces, 126 gold bars and other artifacts at an auction at Christie's in Amsterdam

"People were blinded and wanted to repeat Hatcher's luck. everybody was racing to dig up the real treasure, long believed by many to be part of ancient legends," Sumarah said.

Although no salvage companies have been as successful as Hatcher, they discovered a great deal of ancient ceramics, ivory and other metals of significant historical and archaeological value.

"I know they actually want gold and other precious metals, but they found an abundance of important ceramic pieces instead," she said.

Sumarah said Chinese ceramics found in Indonesia, both in the sea and on land, mostly originated from the Sung Dynasty (960- 1280), the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368), the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912).

There were also ceramics from Thailand (15th century and 16th century), usually found with ceramics from China and Vietnam (Anammese).

The most common ceramics to be found in Indonesia are green- glazed wares, conventionally called celadon. Celadon were common Chinese exports before the introduction of blue and white wares.

Ching pai (from the Sung and Yuan dynasties) -- white-glazed pots, jars, bowls and cover boxes found in Bali and Sulawesi and Kota Cina.

Yellow-gray ware (southern Sung dynasty) found in Kota Cina, South Sumatra, and South Sulawesi in the form of spouts, small bowls, while te hua wares (white glazeware) from the Yuan dynasty were found in several places, including Tuban.

"It is a pity most of salvage companies do not know how to determine and appraise the value, quality and authenticity of those ceramics," she said.

Besides, they rarely hired local archaeologists and ceramic experts as they feared their findings would be reported to the state, she added.


For archaeologists, historians, ceramicists and other related experts, the study of ceramics and pottery has an important bearing on social, cultural, political and economic aspects of a society in a certain period, she said.

Ceramics have been used by people as a measure of wealth, social status and artistic and technological achievement for thousands of years, explained Sumarah, one of Indonesia's prominent ceramic experts.

Ceramics were also used by archaeologists as essential indicators to determine ancient maritime and trade routes, the spots of human settlements, centers of kingdoms, seaports and the conditions of old civilizations.

According to A.B. Lapian, a professor of maritime history, the Indonesian archipelago was part of Asian and European ancient maritime and trade routes, known as the silk route.

Therefore, it possibly had important ports for foreign vessels which brought priceless commodities, including European, Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics.

The findings of Chinese ceramics in Tuban suggested the link between the Chinese Yuan dynasty (between the 12th century and 13th century) led by Khubilai Khan, the descendant of Mongolian Gengis Khan, the old Javanese Kingdom of Kediri and later Singasari in East Java.

On Belitung island, a large number of ceramics from the Tang dynasty (between the 7th century and 8th century) were smuggled to foreign countries like Germany and New Zealand.

"The findings of Tang's ceramics was significant evidence of trade between Nusantara (ancient Indonesia, China and Southeast Asia) and they date back as far as the 7th century," she said.

More importantly, these ceramics were found in an Arabic vessel. "This means that since that period, we had already had foreign contacts with China and the Arab world," Sumarah said.


Head of Cultural Preservation at the Directorate General for Culture Harry Untoro complained that the salvage, looting and smuggling of underwater treasures, including ceramics, had caused a great loss to the archaeological world.

"We lost a lot of invaluable historic data which most salvage companies do not even understand and care about," said Harry.

He charged that the underwater ceramics were excavated and treated unprofessionally by the salvage companies.

"They do not know how to deal with these archaeological treasures," Harry said.

Ceramics which have been underwater need special treatment, including proper conservation, maintenance and storage techniques.

Thousands of antique ceramics were now in poor conditions in various storage areas because of the companies' ignorance and recklessness, Harry maintained.

"They are stupid if they want to sell their findings in such conditions in the international art market," he said.

Legal auction houses and respectable art collectors do not easily accept low-quality ceramics, especially when they bear no legal certificates from official institutions.

"There is nothing wrong them with selling their findings as long as they follow the regulations, meaning they have to succumb part of their rare collections to the government for scientific purposes," he said.

But, as usual, the penny-pinching hunters will not let other people lay their hands on their treasure.