There are very few dedicated archaeology conferences in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia, so it was with anticipation and excitement that I attended the second SEAMEO SPAFA international conference on Southeast Asian Archaeology, held from May 30 – 2 June 2016 in Bangkok, Thailand.
SEAMEO SPAFA is a long acronym for an interesting organisation – the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts, which is dedicated to promoting cooperation in education, science and culture in Southeast Asia.
Maritime archaeology featured strongly at the conference. Abhirada ‘Pook’ Komoot, from Bangkok’s Silpakorn University, co-convened a panel on maritime cultural heritage in Southeast Asia. Pook expressed her surprise at the number of papers submitted for this panel – an indication of the growing interest in this field.
Over three days, we covered many aspects of maritime archaeology in Southeast Asia – from management and preservation to recent discoveries and new heritage approaches. There were of course some more technical papers – I now know what a senabi* is! – and exciting technology in the form of Korea’s Crabster CR200. The award for most (over-) used image must go to the ship relief from Indonesia’s Borobudur temple.
One of the strongest themes to emerge was the need to protect and preserve underwater cultural heritage sites. Rainer Troa from the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries presented a proposal to establish a marine eco-archaeological park in Natuna, Indonesia. Here, the coral reef and marine life has grown on and around a number of ancient shipwrecks, prompting Indonesia to propose a multi-disciplinary model that protects both the wrecks and the reef.
The focus on Indonesia continued throughout the conference, with many references to the Belitung (Tang) shipwreck, discovered in 1998 and now on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz presented on the opposing imperatives of economics and heritage conservation in Indonesia, and the different rights and obligations of those who claim ownership of wrecks such as the Belitung, Cirebon and Tek Sing. Despite the current moratorium on commercial excavation, which was a focus of my paper, shipwrecks remain under threat in Indonesia. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, underwater cultural heritage is managed by the National Museum, providing a different model for consideration.
We then moved to Vietnam, with Charlotte Looram elaborating on the capacity building work undertaken by the Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project. This project is vital for the longer-term goal of preserving underwater cultural heritage in the region, as without trained practitioners there will be no-one to promote and protect Southeast Asia’s maritime heritage.
I also enjoyed Jun Kimura’s discussion about naval battlefields in Vietnam, focusing on the port of Van Don and the archaeological evidence that attests to the defeat of invading Mongols in the 13th century. Mark Staniforth’s discussion on the role of memory and oral histories in the Quan Lan festival, which celebrates this battle, was particularly memorable for the way it brought together intangible heritage with the material remains of the past.
Amidst all this talk of wrecks, legislation and heritage, Professor Thomas Tartaron concluded by reminding us of the people who bring maritime landscapes to life – coastal communities of seafarers and fishermen who rely on knowledge passed down through generations to impart the skills needed to forge a living from the sea. Oral historians and ethno-archaeologists are urgently needed in many parts of Southeast Asian before it is too late to record this information.
The final day of the conference was a visit to the Phanom Surin shipwreck, about an hour south of Bangkok in Samut Sakhon province. Like the Belitung, the Phanom Surin is a 9th-century Arabian-style ship with a stitched hull. For me, the most fascinating aspect of this wreck is not that it was found 8km inland (though that really does make me appreciate how much the coastal landscape has changed in the past millennium!), but that the landowner had the presence of mind to notify local authorities. He has subsequently welcomed archaeologists onto his land to conduct the painstaking process of research and excavation. Investigations are ongoing, and there are also discussions about establishing a dedicated museum – an exciting possibility for Thailand, and the region.
If you’re interested in underwater cultural heritage, Southeast Asia has all the challenges and opportunities you could possibly hope for. Conference Coordinator, Noel Hidalgo Tan – SEAMEO SPAFA’s Senior Specialist in Archaeology – has indicated that the next SPAFA conference is scheduled for 2019. That gives all you budding maritime archaeologists three years to collect your data, draft a paper and book your flights!
* As Daniel Dwyer (Charles Darwin University) explained, a senabi is an external stern-lashing used extensively in Southeast Asia.