21 December 2015

On the Perils of Blogging ...

Dear Readers

There’s been a theft, of sorts … Not quite “There’s been a Murr-dahh!”, as TV’s Inspector Taggart used to say. Certainly nothing quite so dramatic, but still …

I logged on to Twitter on Sunday morning. Twitter is a great source of up-to-date reading material. It’s always interesting to see what articles or blogs people have posted links to, and it’s always nice to see when people have commented on or shared links to the blog posts I write here on Waymarks. Hence I was initially quite chuffed to see a familiar photo pop up in my timeline. It was familiar because it was a photo I had taken. A quick glance at the accompanying text suggested it linked to my latest blog post on Singapore’s “T’ang Shipwreck,” which was heartening, but something seemed odd. 

The image was of a bronze statue from Tibet or Nepal ... The image had certainly featured on my original blog post, but it’s not an object from the shipwreck which the title of the article refers to … Curious I clicked the link (which wasn’t recognisable as it had been shortened using Bitly). To my baffled surprise it didn’t take me to Waymarks but instead it took me to an almost identical version of my original blog piece on someone else’s blog entirely! 


My latest blog post has been appropriated in its entirety without my permission.

I quickly overcame my stunned and rather uneasy sense of disbelief. Surely there must be some mistake? A closer look showed the blog piece had duly been credited to me (which was a small relief), but checking back on Twitter and then on my blog itself I could find no message or notification from the blogger who had purloined my piece. He doesn’t even follow me on Twitter! Fortunately I follow him, or else I might never have seen or been aware that this had happened.

I sent him a message, and he replied immediately. But here’s where I found myself posed with a bit of a dilemma.

Here are the facts:

1. He did this without asking my permission and without even having the courtesy to notify me.
2. He had duly credited me as the original author and there is a link back to my blog.
3. I pointed out what he’d done was at best impolite.
4. He apologised and said he would not do it again.
5. Hmmm ...
6. I still feel annoyed about it. 


I am uneasy about letting my piece stand on his blog. It has after all been appropriated and modified in its entirety without my permission. But it could have been worse, I suppose.

It has flagged up an important issue. Posting anything on-line automatically makes it fair game for poaching. Funnily enough only a few days before I’d been part of a discussion on copyright and the terms of ‘fair use’ with some fellow bloggers on Twitter. From time-to-time I, myself, have used other people’s work (mostly images) on my blog. I’ve always sought to source material which is clearly in the ‘public domain’ or that would reasonably count as ‘fair use’, and if copyright infringement has appeared to be a potential issue I’ve always sought permission to use the image from its owner wherever I can first. It’s amazing the generosity I’ve encountered in this respect. I’ve never yet been turned down in fact. Hence I’m sure if Mr Van Roon had simply taken a moment to ask me first I may well have been only too happy to give him the thumbs up and say “go ahead.” After all, this is why we blog – to freely interact and share with one another. In essence Mr Van Roon has disregarded the fundamental etiquette and goodwill of blogging.

It’s sad that this kind of thing occurs. Looking at my site stats his appropriation of my blog post has sent very little traffic to my blog, even though the link to the piece as it appears on his blog which he posted on Twitter has been ‘liked’ and ‘retweeted’ by a fair few people. Should I be flattered and grateful he has shared my work on his evidently quite popular blog? Is this a kind of free publicity? Or have I been robbed? … His blog is mainly a digest of recycled works by other people raked in from across the web. One wonders how much effort that takes compared to me sitting down, writing the piece, editing it, selecting the photos, editing and arranging them, before actually posting the finished piece to my blog? It probably takes him only a fraction of the time and effort. Is this just sour grapes, or am I right to still feel disgruntled?


I’m more than aware that Waymarks gets mined daily for images. The site stats tell me that “Google image search” is a major source of traffic to the blog. Sometimes I can even see the search terms (“Leonardo’s Venusian Man” is an oddly regular one which actually quite amuses me). This is why I often keep the images fairly low resolution; that and the fact it makes the blog load easier and more quickly on your browser. I resolved early on that “if it’s too precious, I won’t post it.” But sometimes you don’t realise how precious something is until someone else nicks it!


Maybe today’s blog post, so to speak, is purely tomorrow’s digital-microchip paper? … But it’s the principle of the thing which bugs me most here. He could have asked. It only takes a moment longer than the moment it took to pinch the piece. And if he had, we’d both be smiling now, rather than one of us frowning quite hard at the other.

11 December 2015

The T'ang Shipwreck - Singapore

Sometime around 830-840 AD a merchant ship set sail, most likely from the Chinese port of Yangzhou, or perhaps from Guangzhou further south, following a well established maritime trade route through southeast Asia, via Java, towards the Arabian Gulf, where it was probably heading towards Basra, then the principal port of the Abbasid Caliphate, in modern day Iraq. The ship was carrying a large cargo of ceramics – some 70,000 pieces were tightly packed inside its hold, along with other, more precious goods such as finely crafted items of gold and silver, plus 29 bronze mirrors, as well as more perishable commodities, such as spices and probably textiles too (silk was certainly used as a currency at this time). However, the ship never reached its intended destination, as it was wrecked en route in the Java Sea, some 600 km south of Singapore.

The wreck was discovered in 1998, not far from the Indonesian island of Belitung, by fishermen diving for sea cucumbers. Given that the wreck was located in shallow waters and less than 3 kms from the shore it was very vulnerable to looting and accidental destruction, consequently the Indonesian government authorised a salvage company to recover the 9th century ship’s cargo. This recovery operation took place over two seasons. The importance of the wreck, despite its having been subject to commercial salvage rather than a more scientific programme of archaeological excavation, was noted and hence, in order to preserve the assemblage as a whole, the cargo was purchased by Singapore with the purpose of making it available to the peoples of the wider Southeast Asia region in a public museum. Accordingly, the contents of the wreck were first put on temporary display at Singapore’s Art Science Museum in 2011 (you can read an interesting and thought-provoking review of that exhibition, and the controversial issues surrounding the original acquisition of the wreck’s contents, by Rachel Leow on her blog here and here). Now, nearly five years later the Belitung shipwreck has at last found its final berth in a new permanent gallery at Singapore’s excellent Asian Civilisations Museum. This new display was opened to the public last month by Ms Grace Fu, Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. I was lucky enough to be invited to the opening ceremony. 

For anyone visiting Singapore who has an interest in art and archaeology, the Asian Civilisations Museum is a must-visit site. Built in 1865 the Neoclassical building, which originally housed the offices of the British colonial government, has recently been undergoing a transformation. Last month saw the opening of the first of the Museum’s “New Spaces” with the T’ang Shipwreck gallery as its centrepiece. The shipwreck is clearly being showcased as an important marker for modern Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations. As one of the texts accompanying the display attests: “Singapore lies between two oceans, along a busy sea route running from the Middle East to India, Southeast Asia, and China. This network rivalled the more famous Silk Route through Central Asia. Glass was brought from the Middle East, cotton from India, spices and wood from Southeast Asia, and ceramics and silk from China. These economic ties led to the exchange of artistic ideas, and to contacts between peoples of different cultures.
            The Tang Shipwreck reveals that Singapore’s region lay at the heart of a global trading network in the 9th century. The success of Singapore as an exchange point of global shipping thus has ancient roots. The beautiful objects of exceptional rarity testify to the ingenuity of artists and merchants, and show that exotic objects have long been appreciated by the world’s consumers.”

Paeans to ancient precursors of modern consumerism and political agendas aside (see here for a recent article on maritime archaeology and modern day nationalism), the actual analysis of the antiquities recovered from the Belitung shipwreck has revealed some fascinating information. It is claimed that “not a single nail or dowel was used to construct the ship,” instead it was made from wooden planks which had been sewn together with rope made from coconut husks and caulked with wadding and lime. Scientific tests have shown that the wood came from Africa, and that later repairs were made in a variety of materials sourced from other far distant places, such as India and parts of Southeast Asia. All this suggests that the ship was a dhow, plying a trade route of immense distance from the Arabian Gulf to China, returning with a cargo which gives us a window onto the commercial web which networked the Abbasid and Chinese Empires together, most likely via the maritime hub of Palembang, the capital of Srivijaya in Sumatra (Java) – arguably the Singapore of its day.

The ship’s cargo attests to the almost industrial scale of output from certain Chinese kilns of the period, particularly that of Changsha in Hunan province, of which, some 57,500 pieces have been recovered from the Belitung wreck. Plus highly prized celadon wares, green-splashed wares from the Gongxian kilns of Henan, and beautiful white-glazed wares from the Xing kilns of northern China, all of which have also been discovered at other sites in Asia and the Islamic Middle East. Many of these ceramics were packed into larger ceramic vessels, tightly coiled and padded out with straw, these jars contained up to 130 bowls each. This method of packing was highly successful and undoubtedly also ensured that many of the ceramics remained preserved intact on the seabed. In total the ceramics from the ship weighed around 25 tons. 


Many of these bowls are now on open display in the gallery, but why they have been mounted on long metal stems making them look like a large abstract field of poppies, or so many plates spinning on poles, is a modern design mystery which no one I asked could fathom. Thankfully the displays and accompanying texts give adequate context and explanation. The spacious gallery is light and airy with large windows looking out, rather appropriately, onto the waters of nearby Boat Quay, where on my first visit I saw dragon boat races being held. I’m told that once all the redevelopments are complete this area will become the new entrance to the Museum, hence the T’ang shipwreck will be the first gallery the visitor encounters.

The rest of the Museum is filled with a wonderful array of artefacts from many different cultures and wide-ranging regions across Asia. The sculptures of the Ancient Religions room, including several pieces from the ancient cultural crossroads at Gandhara (in modern day Pakistan), such as the magnificent monumental terracotta head of a bodhisattva with a mass of curly hair, are not to be missed. Plus, the two Southeast Asia rooms are crammed with such a variety of fascinating treasures that I became completely engrossed and lost all track of time. The room dedicated to the “Chinese Scholar” is an exquisitely evocative new addition to the Museum too. I’m looking forward to returning next summer to see what other transformations will have taken place by that time.