Sunken Ship Cargo (BMKT): why do we study ‘ orphan objects ‘ to find out where they come from?


Discussions on maritime issues in Southeast Asia have recently focused on issues such as security, the Blue Economy, law enforcement, and climate change. However, there is one maritime challenge that is less discussed, namely underwater heritage.

We are researchers in a project entitled Reuniting Cargoes: Underwater Cultural Heritage of the Maritime Silk Route .

Since the 1960s, Southeast Asia has experienced a large increase in the removal of sunken cargo objects (BMKT) both commercially and illegally. These items are often taken from unprotected places and then sold through intermediaries and auction houses to collectors and museums. In this process, the relationship between objects and their original location becomes lost or blurred, so that their cultural and historical value is reduced.

This project aims to overcome these challenges. We find out what objects come from shipwrecks, and how they come out of the water and collect.

To do this, we need to find out where objects come from by applying the latest methods of archaeological science. Talking to the community and local authorities is another important way to gather information about the origins of a shipwreck.

Learning more about and reconnecting with BMKT can change the way society relates to these objects. This can increase everyone’s understanding of these artifacts beyond their commercial value.

What we do

We studied two ceramic collections.

The first is in Australia, consisting of around 2,300 objects purchased from antiques markets across Indonesia by a private collector over several decades.

The second largest collection in Indonesia, numbering around 230,000 objects. This collection was collected by the Indonesian government and is now stored in a shipwreck artifact warehouse in Jakarta.

Our goal is to find out which shipwreck the items came from.

Why we do this

Ancient shipwrecks , sunken cargo and sunken past are underwater heritage.

The 2001 UNESCO Convention prioritizes the protection and preservation of these sites, and emphasizes the importance of international cooperation to achieve this goal. The main idea is that cultural heritage (including BMKT) can help foster local, national and regional identity.

We believe that taking “orphan objects”—BMKTs found unethically, illegally, or in other problematic ways—held in private or institutional collections and reconnecting these objects with their countries and communities of origin, is an important part of from broader goals.

Shipwrecks and their cargo can become sites of conflict

From South America to the South China Sea , states and non-state actors (such as curious tourists or people seeking to profit from shipwrecks) make a variety of claims regarding ancient shipwrecks. Some are motivated by nationalism, others are motivated by money.

It is important to remember that local communities engage with cultural heritage in unique ways. What makes sense to policymakers, scientists, or communities in one place may not make sense to those in another place.

Our project seeks to reconnect orphaned objects. One example is underwater sites that have been salvaged commercially (meaning items were found and then sold for profit) rather than scientifically excavated.

Identifying the original discovery site of these orphan objects is not without scientific, political, and legal challenges.

But these challenges can also bring opportunities. This project requires collaboration between project partners from Indonesia and Australia. This builds capacity on both sides. In the process, we are helping to develop mechanisms that can guide the return of other cultural heritage objects more widely to their places of origin.

BMKT tourism and sustainable development

Shipwrecks are of great scientific and historical interest. But they can also reveal local, national and international tensions.

Take, for example, a 9th century shipwreck discovered in 1998 in waters near Belitung Island , Indonesia. Indonesian law at the time clearly allowed commercial operators to salvage sunken ships in its territorial waters, even though this was contrary to international standards set by UNESCO.

Then there’s the 18th-century Spanish ship, the San José , which lies in American Caribbean waters and is the subject of a multi-state legal battle over who should get the treasure it carries.

On the other hand, shipwrecks have political value. They can bring together people with a common goal or identity. This can be better integrated into sustainable development strategies, including through community-based marine tourism.

The BMKT tourism initiative will enable local communities to gain financial benefits. Adopting environmentally friendly practices can also help protect marine ecosystems and ensure the long-term sustainability of BMKT.

This will help grow the local economy by offering various types of work, not just as fishermen, while minimizing BMKT looting and illicit trade.

Successful initiatives in this regard are already underway in Indonesia, such as in Karawang, West Java, Abang Island, Riau Islands and Tidore, North Maluku.

Reconnect orphaned objects

Orphaned objects have not received the attention they deserve.

Objects like this generally become a kind of ‘curse’ for academics, because of the assumption that studying them means legitimizing them.

We agree that there are important ethical considerations. But we also recognize that these abandoned objects are an important part of broader geopolitical and maritime security debates.

Excluding them from scientific study, as has been the case to date, is to risk missing an important piece of the maritime puzzle.

Author Bios: Natali Pearson is a Senior Lecturer, Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, Martin Polkinghorne is Associate Professor in Archaeology, Nia Naelul Hasanah Ridwan is a Maritime-Underwater Archaeologist and PhD Candidate on Archeology (Humanities) and Zainab Tahir is a Marine Heritage Analyst and PhD Candidate all three at Flinders University