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Photo: Wreckwatch magazine.
Archaeologists are learning more about the Srivijaya Empire of Indonesia, which once dominated maritime trade routes. But nighttime divers selling to the black market may stop the research in its tracks.

I’ve been reading a murder mystery that takes place after a very dark time in India’s history — the time called Partition, when Britain made a ghastly, clumsy attempt to create one Hindu nation and one Muslim nation out of a country Gandhi had hoped would stay whole. I’m at the part in the book where it appears that the ugliness of different faiths slaughtering each others’ families might have been exacerbated by lust for gold. Where some have a lot of wealth, others may have nothing.

That’s my roundabout introduction to a report on newly found treasures of a defunct civilization — and my way of saying that lust for wealth can’t end well.

Livia Gershon reports at Smithsonian magazine, “Local divers exploring Indonesia’s Musi River have found gold rings, beads and other artifacts that may be linked to the Srivijaya Empire, which controlled sea trade across large swaths of Asia between the 7th and 11th centuries C.E.

“ ‘In the last five years, extraordinary stuff has been coming up,’ British maritime archaeologist Sean Kingsley, who reported on the discoveries in the autumn issue of Wreckwatch magazine, tells the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge.

‘Coins of all periods, gold and Buddhist statues, gems, all the kinds of things that you might read about in Sinbad the Sailor and think it was made up. It’s actually real.’

“Among the discoveries are a life-size Buddhist statue covered in precious gems, temple bells, mirrors, wine jugs and flutes shaped like peacocks, reports Stephanie Pappas for Live Science.

“The kingdom of Srivijaya began in Palembang, a city located on the Musi River on the island of Sumatra. Per Encyclopedia Britannica, the empire controlled the Strait of Malacca — a key route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans — and established trade with groups in the Malay Archipelago, China and India. Srivijaya was also a center of Mahayana Buddhism.

“Seventh-century Chinese reports indicate that Palembang was home to more than 1,000 Buddhist monks. Chinese Buddhists stopped in the city to study Sanskrit during pilgrimages to India, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism. In 1025, war with India’s Chola dynasty reduced Srivijaya’s power, though it continued to play a role in trade for another two centuries. 

“As Kingsley writes in Wreckwatch, archaeologists have found no traces of royal court buildings, temples or other structures. It’s possible that the island’s volcanoes covered them. But another likely explanation is that the city was built mostly out of wood, with homes and other buildings constructed on rafts that floated on the river—a type of architecture still seen in some Southeast Asian countries today, per Live Science. Such structures would have rotted away long ago. …

“Per Wreckwatch, the kingdom was rich in gold, which it used strategically to build relationships with China and other regional powers. …

“Kingsley tells Live Science that no official archaeological excavations have been conducted in or around the Musi River. But amateurs have been finding treasures there since 2011, when construction workers discovered a number of artifacts while dredging sand from the river. Soon, local fishermen and workers began exploring the body of water. …

“Large numbers of these artifacts then showed up on the antiquities market. Many ended up in private collections, leaving little physical evidence about the civilization for scholars to study. …

“Indonesia put a moratorium on underwater archaeology in 2010. But as Kingsley points out, a black market in artifacts discovered during nighttime dives continues.

“ ‘Fishermen don’t stop fishing and they don’t stop discovering,’ he tells Live Science. “ ‘Only now, they’re even more unlikely to report finds to authorities. … Newly discovered, the story of the rise and fall of Srivijaya is dying anew without being told.’ “

More at the Smithsonian, here.

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