Diving for Treasure in Thailand
As well as enabling professionals to carefully excavate shipwreck sites and recover historic artefacts for the edification of generations to come, Unesco schemes to safeguard Thailand’s submarine cultural heritage will also benefit tourist activities such as scuba-diving, points out Bobby Orillaneda, an academic working for the Underwater Archaeology Section at the National Museum of the Philippines.
Orillaneda and a handful of other researchers participated in the first ever foundation course on underwater cultural heritage organized in Rayong province recently by Unesco’s Asia-Pacific Regional Field Training Centre.
“Recreational divers can unintentionally damage or destroy vital evidence, so it’s important for us archaeologists to get to these sites first. After we sift through the findings we can educate divers on how to conduct themselves in these spots and this, I believe, can make the experience a lot more enjoyable for them,” noted Orillaneda, who’s been here on three previous occasions for similar practical training sessions.
“I’ve been participating in these schemes for 10 years now and this particular Unesco-led course has helped me to brush up on basic methodology procedures and on the latest technology used during excavations.”
Orillaneda first flew in for a training session in Chanthaburi six years ago, later visiting Chon Buri to help excavate a shipwreck site. He says he knows of at least five such sites in the Kingdom’s territorial waters which date back to the 15th century.
What does Thailand have going for it in terms of underwater archaeology?
You Thais are very lucky in the sense that you have the financial and manpower resources to do research on your own. The Philippines has yet to reach that level; we just don’t have the funds to do it. I don’t believe that Southeast Asia has any other established maritime archaeology center except for the one in Thailand.
To what use will you put the knowledge you have gained from training sessions here?
Honestly, all we can do at the moment is give feedback to our superiors and hope for the best. If the National Museum [of the Philippines] has the money to fund research, I’m sure that we can put the data we’ve accumulated to good use. I strongly believe in the importance of working together with other Southeast Asian countries in research and in sharing information. These types of academic collaborations also improve networking, which eventually benefits us in updating our knowledge. I’d also like to evaluate more critically the Unesco Convention and [determine] if it is applicable to the Philippines.
What can be done to prevent our underwater cultural heritage from being destroyed by unscrupulous people out to make a fast buck?
It’s important to establish a more solid legal framework. If you see someone looting or treasure-hunting you can immediately use this legal framework as your back-up. Despite the existence of penalties for such offences, however, people will often go ahead and break [the laws]. This is why I feel that an awareness programme should be put in place to educate the general public on the importance of preserving the cultural heritage found in our seas.
With the exception of the well-traveled and well-educated in our society, the average person has no interest in going to museums and doesn’t give a hoot about culturally significant artifacts. Cultural appreciation can only come about when we’re able to reach people from all walks of life. In my country we organize information-dissemination activities to make the public aware of our work, but since we have to target settlements on over 7,000 islands and we suffer from a serious lack of manpower we aren’t able to reach everyone.
Most of our shipwrecks are found by fishermen and because they need to earn a living these people would prefer to financially benefit from such finds rather than report them to our museum. Giving them monetary rewards would be a step in the right direction.
Tell our readers about a few of the more memorable experiences you’ve had while working as an underwater archaeologist.
One that immediately comes to mind was the sunken city of Alexandria, in Egypt. It was such a fantastic experience to visit this ancient city which lies completely underwater only a few meters from the shore.
Sattahip [where the foundation course was held] was the first place I went for recreational diving. That was very memorable in the sense that I ended up rescuing someone that day!