Belitung: The Afterlives of a Shipwreck

Hardback: $68.00
ISBN-13: 9780824892944
Published: November 2022
Paperback: $28.00
ISBN-13: 9780824892968
Published: August 2023

Additional Information

230 pages | 11 b&w illustrations
  • About the Book
  • In 1998, the Belitung, a ninth-century western Indian Ocean–style vessel, was discovered in Indonesian waters. Onboard was a full cargo load, likely intended for the Middle Eastern market, of over 60,000 Chinese Tang-dynasty ceramics, gold, and other precious objects. It is one of the most significant shipwreck discoveries of recent times, revealing the global scale of ancient commercial endeavors and the centrality of the ocean within the Silk Road story.

    But this shipwreck also has a modern tale to tell, of how nation-states appropriate the remnants of the past for their own purposes, and of the international debates about who owns—and is responsible for—shared heritage. The commercial salvage of objects from the Belitung, and their subsequent sale to Singapore, contravened the principles of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and prompted international condemnation. The resulting controversy continues to reverberate in academic and curatorial circles. Major museums refused to host international traveling exhibitions of the collection, and some archaeologists announced they would rather see the objects thrown back in the sea than ever go on display.

    Shipwrecks are anchored in the public imagination, their stories of treasure and tragedy told in museums, cinema, and song. At the same time, they are sites of scholarly inquiry, a means by which maritime archaeologists interrogate the past through its material remains. Every shipwreck is an accidental time capsule, replete with the sunken stories of those on board, of the personal and commercial objects that went down with the vessel, and of an unfinished journey. In this moving and thought-provoking reflection of underwater cultural heritage management, Natali Pearson reveals valuable new information about the Belitung salvage, obtained firsthand from the salvagers, and the intricacies in the many conflicts and relationships that developed. In tracing the Belitung’s lives and afterlives, this book shifts our thinking about shipwrecks beyond popular tropes of romance, pirates, and treasure, and toward an understanding of how the relationships between sites, objects, and people shape the stories we tell of the past in the present.

  • About the Author(s)
    • Natali Pearson, Author

      Natali Pearson teaches and researches at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia.
  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • Pearson’s detailed research into every facet of this story uncovers a dizzying but entertaining tale of chicanery and self-interest, from ancient storms to buccaneering salvagers and into the equally stormy waters of archaeological orthodoxy and museum ethics in the 21st century. She navigates them confidently and with balance, identifying some significant dilemmas.
      —Signals, Australian National Maritime Museum (Spring 2023)
    • The Belitung shipwreck is an important case study that shows the complexity of the issues surrounding national and transnational heritage-creation processes involving shipwrecks and maritime heritage. I would like to applaud and thank Pearson for her work’s extensive research and fresh approach, and for being brave enough to place this very polarized topic in the context of critical heritage approaches. Fortunately, since the Belitung matter much has happened to move the field of maritime and underwater cultural heritage away from the Eurocentric focus on shipwrecks. Dr. Pearson’s book makes a very valuable contribution to this ongoing and polarized discussion.
      —Robert Parthesius, Asian Review of World Histories, 11:2 (2023)