If you are interested in the ongoing controversy between underwater treasure hunt on the one side, and preserving and surveying wrecks as important archeological sites on the other side, Frank Pope's "Dragon Sea" may just be the definite book on the subject.
Truth be told, when I first saw the book, the cover art suggested this was romance or adventure fiction and I only picked it up because it also showed a diver. The hard cover's full title, "Dragon Sea: A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology and Greed off the Coast of Vietnam" sort of reinforced that notion (as does, I later found out, the paperback version's revised "Dragon Sea: A True Story of Intrigue, Treasure and Adventure Beneath the Waves" cover). So the controversy apparently even extended to finding an appropriate title.
Dragon Sea, however, is an exceedingly serious and very well written book describing the recovery of a large amount of 15th century Vietnamese porcelain and pottery from a wreck off Vietnam in the South China Sea. The dive site is deep, 220 feet, the conditions challenging, the origins of the wreck unknown, and the cargo of great archeological interest. Learning about such an involved recovery effort alone would make for fascinating reading, but "Dragon Sea" presents it all with several twists.
First, while the history of Chinese porcelain is very well documented, almost nothing is known about Vietnamese ceramics and art. That's because of Vietnam's turbulent history that wiped out much of its cultural heritage. As a result, learning about techniques, timelines and styles is of great importance to the Vietnamese. Second, there's the allure of searching for treasure and plundering wrecks once they are found versus mounting attempts to preserve such wrecks as cultural heritage. Unfortunately, enforcement of those noble goals is almost impossible, and surveys and preservation are very expensive. So why can't the two sides join forces, with treasure hunters financing officially sanctioned recoveries and performing them in conjunction with legitimate archeologists, splitting the proceeds, with part being sold and part exhibited in museums? This is what Dragon Seas is all about, the tale of such a cooperative effort.
The book is organized into three parts, one introducing the characters and challenge, the second the actual recovery, and the third on what happened afterwards.
The two principal characters in the book represent the opposing forces in the conflict, forces that join in an uneasy cooperation. On the one side you have Mensun Bound, an acclaimed British marine archeologist at Oxford University with an interesting background (born on the Falkland Islands, educated in the US, and a Fellow of St Peter's College), a record of major underwater archeological achievement, involvement in the Discovery TV series "Lost Ships", and also a mentor to author Frank Pope. On the other side is Malaysian businssman Ong Soo Hin, a mix of "cultured British charm and Chinese entrepreneurial zeal." Ong becomes interested in shipwreck salvage as an investment opportunity, a hunch that seems justified when the salvage of the Dutch East India Company ship Geldermalsen results in the second largest auction Christie's ever had. So when local fishermen start recovering what seems like ancient Vietnamese ceramics with nets and rakes, Ong sees a golden opportunity. He establishes himself as an "ethical salvager" by hiring Bound and setting up a mutually beneficial coalition of usually opposing forces.
The second, and largest, part of the book describes the 1999 salvage effort itself, starting with building a team and actually finding the wreck. There are numerous challenges due to the 220-foot depth that makes open-circuit scuba unfeasible. The depth and size of the project requires a whole flotilla of ships as well as a saturation diving setup, the kind that oil companies employ. Here we learn of the competing priorities of time, technology, safety and cost, with Bound, the divers, and Ong all pulling in different directions. There's interesting detail on saturation diving, weather conditions, near fatal storms, and any number of personality conflicts, and an emerging wealth of Vietnamese ceramics and its puzzling history.
The final part of the book deals with the aftermath of the recovery in 2000 with, again, diverging goals. Bound, the archeologist, seeks to preserve, document, publish (and fend off competing archeologists). Ong, the businessman, seeks a return on his investment, eventually choosing a small San Francisco-based auction house that had recently been acquired by eBay (the auction took place in October of 2000 (see report)). The reality is sobering and leaves one wondering if partnerships with such different priorities are possible at all.
Interestingly, due to the large number of artifacts recovered, at the time of this review (August 2010), items from the Hoi An Hoard are still available on eBay. I put in a winning bid of $88 for a large decorated plate, a stunningly low price for a piece of Vietnamese ceramics that had spent over 500 years at the bottom of the sea.
-- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com