Vietnam has spent almost all its past under control of China, or under threat of such control. There was a brief "golden age" of eighty years in the fifteenth century when it ruled itself, and its art, including making and glazing ceramics, broke free from the traditions of its big northern neighbor. The years of independence descended into chaos when a civil war began, and the art of the period was largely lost, even the ceramics that were dispersed in trade and then were lost. The artistic production of the age of independence was gone, not enough of it remaining to be systematically collected or understood. One trove of ceramics, however, had lain undisturbed on board the wreck of the _Hoi An_ which had gone down off the coast of Vietnam five hundred years ago. The rediscovery of the hoard, and how it was released to the markets of the world, is the story in _Dragon Sea: A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology, and Greed Off the Coast of Vietnam_ (Harcourt) by Frank Pope. Pope was an immediate observer of much of what is described here; he was the archeological manager for the expedition, the most expensive underwater archeological excavation ever, involving scores of divers, archeologists, seamen, draftsmen, and support personnel like cooks. There is the suspense of working within dangerous depths here, but most of the book's well-narrated drama comes from the conflicting dual motives of the expedition.
The two main characters of the book neatly illustrate the dual motives. Ong Soo Hin is a Malaysian businessman. He might be described as a "smash and grab" salvager, with success in bringing up artistic treasures. He was no archeologist, but realized that there was some worth in keeping an academic arm to his researches; archeologists documenting his finds could well increase the value of them because of giving them credible context and history. He teamed up with Mensun Bound, an academic who was the director of the Maritime Archeology unit at Oxford University (the author is one of his protégés). This was a risk for Bound, since it was unseemly for a professor to break ranks with academia and join in a commercial venture. The difficulties in Bound's position are clear. He would provide an only chance that the contents of the wreck could yield historical information rather than just profit, and if he did not do so, then the wreck would be sacrificed to mere profiteers. The _Hoi An_ was already a target for unsystematic dredging by fishermen who were not only pulling up finds but damaging many by the way they were doing so. There was no way such a difficult excavation could be funded just by, say, Oxford University, and Bound felt he was making the best of what could have been an archeological disaster otherwise. Throughout the excavation, partners Bound and Ong repeatedly bothered one another in ways both rational and puerile, and the duel is fascinating to watch. It takes place in the middle of the most advanced technology for such salvage, and Pope's description of technical aspects of diving, and of the dangers connected to it, is excellent.
It isn't surprising that with competing motivations that interfered with each other, the dive should not be a success. The problem was not that there was limited treasure; over a quarter of a million items were successfully brought up. Indeed, part of the problem may have been that because Vietnamese ceramics from this period are rare, there are few knowledgeable collectors of it and the _Hoi An_ finds represented a huge glut in a small market. That the losses were in the millions meant that the proposed academic reports were delayed, perhaps forever, and also there was an ugly academic squabble about the dating of the finds. All that money and effort went for little real gain, and so to read Pope's book is to be reminded of the frequent futility of human planning and endeavor. Pope ends with the reminder that there are countless other valuable wrecks out there and with the hope that somehow we will find a way to appreciate both their financial and their historic value, but this fascinating and pessimistic book itself gives little hope.