28 May 2004

Mozambique: Controversy Over Sale of Underwater Archaeological Items

Maputo — Mozambican archaeologists argue that the recent sale in Holland of items salvaged from a Portuguese shipwreck in Mozambican waters was illegal, and that the country's archaeological heritage should remain in Mozambique, reports Friday's issue of the independent newsheet, "Mediafax".

The Portuguese galleon sunk in the 17th century near Mozambique Island, off the coast of the northern province of Nampula. 117 Chinese porcelain objects from the Ming dynasty, and 21 gold objects, recovered from the shipwreck, were auctioned by the respected auctioneers Christies in Amsterdam on 19 May, and fetched a price of 117,000 euros (about 140,000 US dollars). The sale took place under the terms of a 1999 contract of dubious legality between the Mozambican government and the companies PI (Patrionio Internacional - International Heritage - which is 80 per cent state owned), and Arqueonautos Worldwide, which is a Portuguese company specialising in underwater archaeology.

The contract granted an area around Mozambique Island for underwater archaeological activities. 50 per cent of the archaeological finds would belong to Arqueonautos. The Mozambican state would take the rest, and select the best pieces, which would then become inalienable state property. The rest would become the property of PI.

This way of exploiting Mozambique's underwater heritage has always been controversial. Leading archaeologist Ricardo Teixeira Duarte had no doubt that it was illegal.

For there is a 1988 law on protecting the country's heritage which states that all archaeological spoils are to be treated as "classified cultural assets". With authorisation from the Ministry of Culture such assets that are in private hands can be transmitted to other people as legacies or as an inheritance - but there is a categorical ban on exporting classified cultural assets, with the exception of export for "cultural or scientific purposes or other purposes that are of public utility".

It is hard to stretch the definition of "public utility" to include lifting artifacts off the Mozambican sea floor, and auctioning them to the highest bidder in Amsterdam. Teixeira Duarte contemptuously dismisses the deal with Arqueonautos as mere "treasure hunting" His position is in line with that of the Association of the Friends of Mozambique Island, which has been fighting for years to preserve the Island, listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The Association has repeatedly argued that anything found on the galleon, not only should not be removed from Mozambique - it should be kept on the Island itself. Teixeira Duarte regretted that these pleas were ignored and the objects taken from the sunken vessel "have ended up in the collections of half a dozen capitalist dilettantes".

He pointed out that this is the first time that objects taken from a World Heritage Site have been sold at public auction. "And UNESCO did nothing about it !", he exclaimed. "How is this possible".

But "Mediafax" points out that, even if UNESCO wanted to intervene, there is little it could do, since Mozambique has not ratified the UNESCO convention of 2001 which warns that selling off underwater heritage is incompatible with protecting it. This convention states that underwater cultural assets "should not be traded, sold or bought as commercial objects".

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