June 8, 2011
by Elizabeth Bartman
As the largest and oldest organization devoted to archaeology in North America, the Archaeological Institute of America is committed to the protection of the world’s cultural heritage. As part of this commitment we strongly oppose the commercial salvage of antiquities and any exploitation of archaeological materials obtained in this manner.
The Belitung Shipwreck was salvaged unscientifically by commercially-motivated treasure hunters. Although the excavation and disposition of these materials may be technically “legal,” it is the AIA’s position that involvement by the Smithsonian Institution in the exhibition of these artifacts will serve to blur the distinction between bona fide nautical archaeology and treasure huntng. Following this path puts the Smithsonian in the indefensible position of aiding those who believe that antiquities are a commodity to be mined for personal or corporate financial gain. They are not—they are part of the world’s cultural patrimony.
As the premier museum of the United States and the largest museum and research institution in the world, the Smithsonian is a model for others and should endorse the highest ethical standards for American archaeological and museological practice. The AIA urges the Smithsonian’s leadership to heed the voices of archaeologists worldwide—including many within its own walls—in cancelling the plans for any exhibition of the Belitung shipwreck and its artifacts. To proceed with plans to display these objects will increase the risk to other equally valuable shipwrecks that have yet to be discovered.