Monday, May 11, 2009

A HISTORY OF DISCOVERING SEABED TREASURES

Underwater archaeologist Erbprem Vatcharangkul takes pride in recovering ancient items in the sea to make sense of it all and better understand the past

By: Story ANCHALEE KONGRUT Main photo YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK
Published: 11/05/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Outlook

What is your idea of a romantic and adventurous career?

 

Erbprem Vatcharangkul

Answers tend to vary - an explorer, a professional extreme sports athlete, a treasure hunter, or a character in any Hollywood action film such as Indiana Jones.

One career that might fit the notion of being romantically adventurous could be that of Erbprem Vatcharangkul, 55, and one of few underwater archaeologists in Thailand.

The position of Chief of Underwater Archaeology Division, Fine Arts Department (FAD), Cultural Ministry, brings to mind footage that is commonly found in National Geographic features.

Almost every week, Erbprem jumps on to a boat and goes for a dive with the hope of recovering cargo items or any historical evidence from wreck sites, which are mostly remains of ancient commercial ships from the Ayutthaya period some 600 years ago.

Erbprem said he feels like a detective when approaching these mysterious ancient vessels.

"It is quiet and very, very cold under the sea. When you approach a [wreck] site, everything is blurred and you cannot distinguish A from B. Eventually, the images become slightly clearer, but you still have to touch the subject with your hands, taking care you don't destroy it. Sometimes, you don't even know what you've found once you're back in the boat," said Erbprem, describing his experience under the water.

The richest archaeological site his team found was Bang Rachai - an ancient vessel dating back almost 400 years, which cruised along commercial port towns within the Gulf of Thailand, loading and delivering goods.

The objects salvaged from this site provided a better picture about the kind of life the crew members had, as well as the nature of trading and the culture during that period (1677 to 1767).

Items from the site that Erbprem is most fond of are jars of makarm piek (tamarind) and khai khem (salted preserved eggs). "This confirms that the ship carried a Thai crew. We also found other items such as wood for producing textile dyes, mirrors, combs, four tonnes of tin nuggets and a few anchors. This cargo also sheds some light on the economic activity," he said.

The latest wreck site his team is working on is 100m off the Andaman shore near Laem Bangsak, not far from Ban Nam Khem in Phangnga province. The vessel is estimated to be about 200 years old, and used during the reign of King Rama III.

Like in Hollywood films, these dive sites are threatened by treasure hunters who plunder expensive items and sell them to antique dealers; archaeologists have to work with extreme caution to locate sites and sunken objects. And then they spend months, even years, to salvage the cargo back on to dry land. Some of the salvage work can even take up to five years to complete, plus expensive costs.

 

Some of the precious items salvaged from wreck sites.

Without an adequate budget, vessels are often left on the seabed, covered in sand. Salvaged objects are preserved at the Maritime Museum in Chanthaburi province.

"Indeed, most archaeological sites each have their own story. In ancient tombs, the direction and location of objects contain its meaning. All of the items give us clues to culture and economic data. But most people see ancient treasures as antiques for sale. Many archaeological sites with related historical evidence were destroyed by looters," said Erbprem.

Erbprem never dreamed that he would one day become an underwater archaeologist. As a boy, he loved history so much that he would scavenge a fried banana bag if it happened to be a story about the past printed on it.

Apart from reading about history, he said he always loved exploring areas such as caves or ancient sites.

He received a bachelor's degree in archaeology from Silpakorn University, as well as a master's degree in Britain on historical heritage management. Erbprem worked as the chief of archaeology, overseeing the ancient historical sites of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai provinces for over 12 years before moving to work in underwater archaeology.

During his university years, Erbprem studied scuba-diving with renowned film-maker Prince Chatri Chalerm Yugala since he was a first year student at Silpakorn University. His character also appeared in Loke Si Khram (Under the Deep Blue Sea), a famous book written by the prince, better known as Than Mui.

"I was one of his students depicted in the book - in the chapter about Than Mui teaching archaeology students. Than Mui raised questions on whether or not his students could become underwater archaeologists. Now I have become one," said Erbprem in a proud voice.

Erbprem was appointed to oversee underwater archaeology amid the rise of looting by foreign treasure hunters. Worldwide looting of underwater ancient cargo began in 1944, after the advent of scuba-diving equipment.

 

Erbprem and his teammates preparing to dive to wreck sites some 40 metres below the sea.

In Thailand, the first case of looting was recorded at Koh Kram, near Sattahip Navy Base in Chon Buri in 1974. Despite the fact that all of the valuables were gone, FAD declared the site as the first maritime archaeological site.

The most famous looting case in Thai seas was in February, 1992, when Thai police officers arrested a boat belonging to the famous marine explorer and treasure hunter Michael Hatcher.

Thai authorities refused to return some 12,000 confiscated pieces of ancient findings salvaged by Hatcher, who claimed that the confiscated items were worth 300 million baht, and that he invested 70 million baht to cover the entire salvaging process, according to Erbprem.

So far, the Underwater Archaeology Division has tried to find and preserve wreck sites and record related historical details. All together, 46 wreck sites have been found by his team, thanks to tips from the local fishermen and scuba-divers.

Ancient cargo such as ivory tusks, leather, chinaware from the Yuan Dynasty 700 years ago, pottery from Si Satchanalai in Sukhothai province as well as gold bracelets were salvaged from the sea.

The discovery shed light on the significance of Ayutthaya as a commercial hub in the region where goods - both imports and exports - were shipped between Thailand and China and even further to Japan.

"I would say the underwater archaeology in Thailand made progress because of our government's policy banning treasure hunting. I think this policy has helped the image of Thai underwater archaeology on the international stage," he said.

In a related development, the Underwater Archaeology Division's office in Chanthaburi province has become the main centre for training underwater archaeologists in the region and archaeological students.

Since 1993, the campaign, "Volunteers for Maritime Cultural Preservation", was organised to train individual scuba-divers and the locals to report any discovery of new sites and also help with the many excavation activities.

The centre in Chanthaburi province is on its way of soon becoming the Regional Field Training Centre for Maritime Archaeology (TRFCMA) - a special capacity building centre under the support of Unesco. The centre was moved from its former base in Sri Lanka due to internal unrest in the country.

The centre is part of the plan to promote the conservation of underwater archaeology and rise awareness about the perils of commercial treasure hunting, specified by the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

Expected to open in October, 2009, it will host professional workshops arranged by renowned experts. The centre will be located at Tha Chalaeb beach in Chanthaburi province, mainly targeting local archaeologists in the region and South Asia.

"The best thing about this centre is that some of the top underwater archaeologists from Britain and Europe will hold workshops here, hopefully a few times a year. That will greatly benefit our underwater archaeological work in Thailand and in the Asian regions," said Erbprem.

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