Members of a government sub-committee charged with salvaging a shipwreck off the coast of Koh Kong province denied on Monday media reports that a Russian company had stepped in and begun recovering and analyzing artifacts from the wreck, which is thought to date from the 16th century.
Committee member and National Museum Deputy Director Hab Touch said Russians had photographed the sunken ship but would not be allowed to actually remove anything from the sea floor without the approval of both the committee and the Russian Embassy.
“We plan to sign a contract with the Russian team of experts for the scope of work we cannot do ourselves,” Hab Touch said.
But, he said, “We need to see their ability first.”
Committee member and Ministry of Culture Secretary of State Khim Sarith said that recovery efforts had stopped around the Khmer New Year to prevent the possibility of breaking fragile artifacts, which are reported to include pottery and elephant tusks.
He declined to name the Russians who took the photographs but said they had offered their assistance free of charge.
Sihanoukville Snake House restaurant owner Nikolai Doroshenko, who was named in media reports as a biologist and diver who led a Russian team on dives to collect pieces of pottery, elephant tusks and wood for laboratory analysis abroad, could not be contacted Monday.
Hab Touch said that so far approximately 900 items, including pottery, baskets, tusks and china, had been safely recovered and were being stored in Koh Kong province.
He also hypothesized that rumors of looting around the underwater site might arise from thefts by locals before authorities investigated the wreck, or possibly from misconceptions about the officials who have been recovering and preserving the artifacts.
Khim Sarith said that approximately 30 men were assigned to guard the site, and that some fishermen who looted items from the ship before authorities learned about it had since returned approximately 20 pieces of pottery because “evil spirits come with the pottery and brought them bad luck.”