Treasure hunters face new threat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2006, 12:00am
 

Treasure hunting is the ultimate experience for those whose souls are possessed by scuba diving. So professional diver and Hong Kong resident Nik Day did not hesitate when shortly after arriving in Jakarta, he was offered a dream job salvaging what was to become known as the Five Dynasties wreck some 225km off the Javanese coast.


Treasure hunting conjures up romantic images of fearless divers plunging into the unknown in search of priceless riches from another time.


For Mr Day, who divides his time between Hong Kong and running a dive shop in Subic Bay about two hours north of Manila in the Philippines, the dream became his reality. The 34-year-old father of two worked for 18 months as a member of a team of international divers from Australia, Britain, France and Belgium. Mr Day's home was a shack near the city of Cirebon and his days were spent scouring the wreck in six-week cycles with 12 days off for close to two years.


'For a diver, it was just brilliant. We didn't know what we would find every day and the international team worked closely together, each had a skill,' he said.


'The pay is about three times what you get as an instructor. When I tell any diver what I'm doing, the first thing they say is 'can you get me in'.'


The team negotiated stiff currents and the ever-changing Java Sea floor in a quest that has led to the recovery of 250,000 artefacts from China's Five Dynasties period from an Arab trading vessel. Included in the find were close to 14,000 pearls, 4,000 rubies, 400 dark red sapphires, and more than 2,200 garnets.


But for a diver, the real danger is not under water, but in the murky world of the politics of exploration - especially once the cargo is brought to the surface.


This is what the Frenchman Jean-Paul Blancan and German Fred Dobberphul discovered last month when they were arrested by Indonesian police who accused them of working without permits and stealing artefacts from the sea floor.


Since March 7, the professional divers have been locked in a Jakarta prison, unsure of when they will be released. Mr Day says that if it had not been for the kindness of Mr Blancan, he could well be facing the same uncertain future in a 10 square metre prison cell. 'I was missing my family in the Philippines and he told me to go and see them,' he said. 'I have no doubt I would be where they are now if I had stayed in Indonesia.'


Despite pleas from the French and German embassies, both men remain in custody. When contacted this week, an Indonesian Police spokesman said investigations were continuing. They face charges of breaching the 1990 Natural Resources Conservation Law, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail if found guilty.


A doctor from the French embassy has reported that Mr Blancan is suffering from typhoid and dengue fever and that both men have lost weight.


Luc Heymans, the head of Cosmix Underwater Research Ltd, which bankrolled the excavation, last week said that the charges were false, and claimed the government was backing the company, but was in a 'hard place' due to the police decision to arrest the men.


'We have all the relevant permits. The government is going to receive a substantial amount of money from this,' he said.


The company has already been in contact with auctioneers in Hong Kong, who have valued the collection at more than US$40 million, Mr Heymans said.


The seas off the coast of Indonesia have yielded some of the biggest finds - and controversies - because the route was once known as the 'Spice road of the Sea', as Arab boats laden with goods from China used the route to get home.


Since the 1980s divers have searched the area, often illegally plundering the buried bounty from 1,000 years ago for profits and bragging rights, rather than any sense of archaeological endeavour.


Mr Heymans admits that in the past, unscrupulous divers have given the industry a bad name and that Indonesians have a right to feel aggrieved about the profits that have flowed from their shores and the lost artefacts.


'That is why every step of this has been done with the laws of Indonesia in mind to ensure we did not have the problems faced by other teams in the past,' he said from Belgium this week.


But a senior source from the Departmen Kelautan dan Perikanan, the government bureau which controls the excavation of goods from Indonesian waters, said the public and government was sick of 'cowboy operators' taking treasure from the seas around the nation without properly compensating the nation.


While refusing to comment directly on the case, the source said Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected on a mandate of fighting corruption, and had made it clear that cleaning up the trade in ill-gotten treasures was part of the agenda.


Under Indonesian law, the government is entitled to half the proceeds of any sale of the treasure.


But up until recently, companies have got around this by paying bribes to the police and the military.


Mr Heymans said he thought the company would be in the clear because he claims they were careful to follow Indonesian law.


'The police and military are angry at us because they are not getting their share and we have refused to pay any money to anyone,' he said. 'There are buyers who are apparently interested in buying this entire collection as one piece because of its historical significance. But we are concerned that if this dispute continues, we'll lose this collection forever.'


Archaeologists are excited by the recovery of the collection because it sheds light on China's Five Dynasties period from AD907 to AD960 of which little is known. Asian experts from the Royal Museum Of Mariemont in Belgium, who are working as historical partners in the excavation, believe the collection from the ship could also prove that Islam arrived in Indonesia far earlier than previously thought.


However, for the two divers still being held in a Jakarta cell, the archaeological and financial wealth of the find is probably the last thing on their mind.


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