Sriwijaya for Sale

Pagaruyung Prasasti

Early Indonesian history is limited to cryptic stone inscriptions and outside sources. Only archaeology can fill in the gaps.

What if you held an auction and no one showed up? Thankfully that’s what happened when the Indonesian government tried to auction off cultural heritage dating from the golden age of Indonesia’s Sriwijaya empire.

Maritime experts believe that the shipwreck discovered off the coast of Cirebon, Java in 2004 harks from 10th century Sumatra. And that the story it tells is not the common tale of outsiders coming in, but of an Indonesian kingdom in its prime, dominating a trade network from Arabia to China.

Precious little evidence about the classic Sriwijaya period, recounted in the histories of foreign powers and in widely scattered stone inscriptions, indicates that the Sriwijaya kingdom was not only wealthy beyond compare, but that it was Asia’s hub of cross-cultural learning from the 7th to 10th centuries. The Chinese monk I-Ching, who studied at Sriwijaya for some ten years, described the scene in the late 7th century: “There are more than a thousand Buddhist priests whose minds are bent on study and good works; thier rules and ceremonies are identical with those of India.”

Early in the 20th century, Indonesia’s founding fathers leveraged Sriwijaya in their call for a “National Awakening”. But current government policy turns Sriwijaya into a business proposition. Whereas land-based archaeological sites are studied and conserved by a dedicated research institution under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, marine sites fall under the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, who contracts private marine salvage operations in exchange for a 50% take on proceeds. So goes the great maritime history of Tanah Air (“Land of Water”).

Last I heard — back in 2005, the Cirebon wreck got especially messy when local police confiscated the salvaged goods mid-operation. Fragile remains of the ship itself — the only example of its kind — were yanked from preservation tanks and locked away in shipping containers. For at least a year. I doubt they fared well…

Anyway, despite outcries from international authorities and the Sultanate of Cirebon, it’s looking likely that this shipload of sunken treasures will soon be scattered to the winds. I’m thinking of a photo project — a final Sriwijaya family portrait, of sorts. Any takers??

See:

Cirebon Palace plans to build museum to house artifacts | The Jakarta Post, 01 May 2010

For Sale: Ancient Treasures Dug From Indonesia’s Seas | reproduced from The Jakarta Globe, 03 May 2010, on the salvage company’s website [photos]

UNESCO chief concerned by auction of ancient artifacts | The Jakarta Post, 05 May 2010

Little Interest in Indonesian Treasure | The Jakarta Globe, 06 May 2010 [photo]

Artifacts auction closed sans bidders | The Jakarta Post, 06 May 2010

Indonesia to Ease Auction Rules to Lure Treasure Bidders | The Jakarta Globe, 09 May 2010 [photo]


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