Vietnam has barely touched shipwreck antiques lying in its seabed, even though it has immense potential thanks to the 3,200km of coast facing the ancient Ceramic Road that linked East and West thousands of years ago.
Part 1: ‘Cemetery’ of ancient shipwrecks in Quang NgaiPart 2: Drying up the sea to find shipwrecked antiques Part 3: Aquatic archaeology in Vietnam inadequate
All the nation can do now is to excavate ancient antiques lying in an area of one million square kilometer of sea surface, instead of developing aquatic archaeology.
Currently, Vietnam does not have anyone educated in aquatic archaeology and has no specific museum featuring antiques in the field, said professor Ha Van Tan. No university or institute in Vietnam offers training in aquatic archaeology.
A big gap
Painter Nguyen Thuong Hy, who spent three years working as an archaeologist on Cu Lao Cham Island, 15km off the coast of the central province of Quang Nam, admitted that Vietnam has no knowledge or equipment for aquatic archaeology without cooperating with foreign partners.
For excavating antiques from the sea, foreign professionals use modern welding machines similar to what governments use to build the bases of offshore oil rigs, said Hy. Vietnam is unable to do this, and it costs a lot of investment and time.
This knowledge gap was perfectly illustrated during the excavation of an ancient shipwreck named Cu Lao Cham from 1997-99. The project was led by Ph.D Mensun Bound, the director of the aquatic archaeology department at Oxford University, and implemented by the Saga Horizon Company of Malaysia and its Vietnamese partner, Visal.
Mr.Bound was in his 70s at the time, but dove to a depth of over 70 meters to lead the excavation, said Hy. In Vietnam, excavations can only be done by divers while local archaeologists stay above the water.
An aquatic archaeologist must be both a scientist and a professional diver, Hy quoted Mr. Bound as saying.
Mensun Bound prepares diving during the excavation of the ancient ship Cu Lao Cham
This lack of knowledge and equipment is the reason why Vietnam has been unable to conduct a comprehensive survey of its immense seabed lying along its lengthy coast.
Vietnamese researcher Ho Tan Phan told Tuoi Tre, “The international Ceramic Road going across Vietnam’s territorial waters, which was the busiest trade route at sea for hundreds of years, is still a mystery to Vietnam. So, the few shipwrecks that have been exposed or discovered mean nothing and account for just a tiny amount of the total.”
Information from international archives confirms that the Vietnamese seabed holds great reserves of ancient artefacts.
Le Quy Don, a Vietnamese philosopher, poet and government official in the 18th century, mentioned in his archived documents that people in O Cap, in modern-day Ba Ria - Vung Tau, earned their living by searching for items from the local seabed.
In addition, international archives reveal that the seawaters of Vietnam were part of the Ceramic Road, which began from as early as the first or second century and lasted till the 17th century – around 1,700 years.
Yet no specific museum featuring shipwreck antiques from the Ceramic Road has ever been opened in Vietnam, and the nation still has no researchers with a sufficeint background on aquatic antiques, said scientist Pham Quoc Quan, who urged authorities to assist in establishing such a museum.
Now, the private company Doan Anh Duong is carrying out its own project to set up such a museum on Phu Quoc Island, and local authorities have agreed to earmark 50 hectares of land for construction.
The firm is considered the biggest collector of antiques excavated from the Vietnamese seabed, with over 62,000 items. It has surveyed and excavated 11 ancient shipwrecked off Vietnamese coast.
But the individual effort of one person or company is insufficient for a national matter.
Current regulations in Vietnam have failed to encourage individuals and firms to colaborate on excavating antiques, while the national government cannot further extend its efforts to take part.
The excavation of the Cu Lao Cham wreck 14 years ago is an example. Foreign firms earned US$3 million after an auction in the US, but the sum was less than a half of what they invested in the project, while the priceless value of antiques is not based on money.
By law, any unique antique item, including the 240,000 items from Cu Lao Cham, belongs to the Vietnamese government. An artifact with two items is equally divided between the government and the investor, and the third item of a version is put up for auction, with the investor pocketing 60 percent of the value and the remaining 40 percent going to the government.
After an auction, any item not purchased is sealed in a warehouse, because local regulations only allow sharing money from antique sales, not sharing actual antiques.
Due to the rule, antiques uncovered by Doan Anh Duong in the excavation were sealed for about a decade, leaving the firm unable to recoup its investment.