Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Indonesian treasures at risk

Confiscated sunken Indonesian treasures at risk, expert warns
JAKARTA March 14, 2006(AFP): A collection of thousand-year-old treasures salvaged from sunken ships is at risk of disintegrating while in the care of Indonesian police, a maritime expert warned Monday.

Police confiscated seven container loads of treasures in January and last week arrested a French and a German diver, accusing them of stealing the artifacts worth millions of dollars.

A scientist working as a consultant for Indonesia's Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry warned that the valuable ceramic, glass and wooden objects dating back to the 10th century would ruin quickly in Indonesia's hot tropical climate.

"They will disintegrate completely. The artifacts now in the containers will only last two weeks," Horst Liebner, an archeological expert working with the ministry, told AFP.

The containers are being kept at police headquarters in the sun without any attempt to preserve them, said Horst.

"Every day will destroy one or two artifacts. They are in containers, still in freshwater and the water will heat up and will grow fungi on all the natural objects," he added.

Indonesian police were not available to comment on Horst's claims.

The hundreds of treasures from ancient Egypt and China's Five Dynasties period dating from 907 to 960 AD were salvaged from wrecks off the north coast of Java and the Bangka-Belitung islands, during an expedition which began in March 2004.

Both the French and German embassies formally protested the arrest of their nationals last Friday.

In a letter to The Jakarta Post daily newspaper, published at the weekend, they pointed out that the pair were working for an Indonesian salvaging company given permits from the government here.

The salvaging team, which included Australian, British, Belgian, and French divers, say they sent DVDs of the treasure images weekly to Indonesian authorities and openly discussed their finds with the media.

If the artifacts are not preserved, Indonesia risks losing an invaluable part of its maritime history and one of the most important archeological finds of the past decade, Horst warned.

"They are losing answers to (questions about) the Majapahit and Sriwijaya kingdoms," said Horst, referring to two Indonesian maritime kingdoms which flourished between the 7th and 12th centuries.

Horst said the treasures contested prior theories about how the Islamic religion was brought to the Southeast Asian archipelago and shed new light on ancient trading routes between the region, Africa, India and China. (***)