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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ancient shipwreck mystery surfaces

Ancient shipwreck mystery surfaces

A painting of a 15th century Chinese junk. Hab Touch, deputy director of the National Museum, estimates that the Koh Sdech shipwreck is from the same era.


he unfolding story of the salvage of a centuries-old sunken ship, found laden with

Chinese pottery and elephant tusks, has broadened to include an unofficial Russian

dive team, unscrupulous looters and a famous Koh Kong casino tycoon.

According to Yuth Phou Thang, governor of Koh Kong province and deputy chairman of

the government's oversight committee, a team of Russian specialists has been assisting

in the recovery operation.

Although the project is suspended, Phou Thang said the government's plan is to retrieve

all the artifacts, raise the entire 30-meter long ship from the deep, and display

the whole package in a proposed Koh Kong museum.

"We cannot estimate how long it will take to bring the artifacts and the ship

from the seabed," Phou Thang said. "It depends on the Russian experts."

But Timur Zevathim, chief of the consular section of the Russian Embassy in Phnom

Penh, told the Post that "no official agreements have been signed."

"We don't know if any Russians are involved," Zevathin said. "We don't

know if any plans or contracts have been signed. We have no information."

This official statement clouds the role of Sihanoukville resident Nikolai Doroshenko,

who says he has led several dive teams to the site and has underwater photographs

of the wreckage.

It also raises questions about the two sets of Russian names found written in April

and March in the register of Koh Sdech's only guesthouse.

The shipwreck - roughly 20 km off the coast of Koh Sdech, Kiri Sakor district - is

now being guarded around the clock by a Royal Navy gunboat to prevent the rampant

looting that occurred prior to government intervention. Koh Kong police and military

officials described the previous pillagers as "Vietnamese fishermen." A

Koh Sdech fisherman named Heng Tong, 27, said he had seen three small boats filled

with looted items taken away from the area.

Hab Touch, deputy director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, said more than 600

pieces of pottery have already been catalogued and are under the supervision of the

Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Touch said the wreck was an international trading

ship and estimates that the recovered relics were produced around the 15th or 16th


But the unauthorized, and unmonitored, excavation has all parties involved wondering

where the looted relics eventually went, and debating whether what remains is a ship

full of sand or sunken treasure.

It all starts in Sihanoukville - in a snake house on Soviet Street. Here, Russian

national Doroshenko told the Post that since February he has led three separate dive

teams to examine the wreckage of what he believes to be a roughly 500-year-old Chinese


Doroshenko, a biologist, licensed diver and owner of the Snake House restaurant,

has taken extensive photographs of the site and prepared sketches of the vessel and

surrounding seabed. He said the ship is 32 meters under the sea and is approximately

27 meters long and 8 meters wide. The ship's hull is mostly intact, its contents


"Russian divers have taken pieces of pottery, elephant horns and wood from the

ship to laboratories in Russia and Germany," Doroshenko said. "They will

have the age and other results in the next few weeks."

Through his photos and drawings, Doroshenko depicts a seabed littered with shattered

pottery, ivory shards and encrusted wooden beans. He said the ship has a single massive

mast that his arms could not encircle and that it was clear the ship had been burned.

According to Doroshenko, diving to the wreck is difficult due to a powerful current,

billowing sediment and visibility at less than two meters. He said the ship has become

filled with sand and must be dredged if it is to be raised.

"The initial divers were not very professional," Doroshenko said. "Most

of the pottery and elephant tusks were broken when taken out because of amateur equipment."

An example of the shards of pottery that litter the seabed surrounding the Koh Sdech shipwreck.

Chheng Chhek, governor of Kiri Sakor and senior government official on Koh Sdech,

said the government first became aware of the shipwreck on February 23 after receiving

reports of looting from the local fishing fleet. He immediately contacted provincial

authorities who dispatched a 24-man naval force.

"Vietnamese fishermen noticed that fish in the area were acting strangely so

they dove to investigate. They found the ship and began looting. We don't know how

long they were taking items away-it could have been months," Chhek said. "We

don't know where they took the findings. It's gone now. It has disappeared."

According to Doroshenko, the Russian team will return soon with extensive diving

equipment. He claims that the government has agreed to allow the Russians to explore

the wreck and retrieve the relics in exchange for food, lodging and security.

On March 5, the Council of Ministers established an oversight committee, chaired

by National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy, to monitor the recovery operation. At

that time, the government also declared it would store all recovered items in Koh

Kong pending a government decision.

Touch said a museum will be built in Koh Kong to house the artifacts, but some will

be brought to the National Museum.

"These are very important findings, so we must protect them," Touch said.

"Many of the items were broken, so we must be careful."

Chhek said the government decided to keep the pottery in Koh Kong because Okhna Ly

Yong Phat, who owns the casino in Koh Kong, paid his own money on behalf of the government

for the diving. According to Chhek the government is allowing Ly Yong Phat to develop

tourism in the area.

"The government has given priority to Koh Kong province to keep the pottery

in order to attract tourists," he said.



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