Dragon Sea: A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology, and Greed off the Coast of Vietnam

Dragon Sea: A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology, and Greed off the Coast of Vietnam

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by Frank Pope, Johnny Heller

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When Oxford archeologist Mensun Bound-dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the Deep" by the Discovery Channel-teamed up with a financier to salvage a sunken trove of fifteenth-century porcelain, it seemed a dream enterprise. The Stakes were high: The Hoi An wreck lay hundreds of feet down in a typhoon-prone stretch of water off the coast of Vietnam known as the

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When Oxford archeologist Mensun Bound-dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the Deep" by the Discovery Channel-teamed up with a financier to salvage a sunken trove of fifteenth-century porcelain, it seemed a dream enterprise. The Stakes were high: The Hoi An wreck lay hundreds of feet down in a typhoon-prone stretch of water off the coast of Vietnam known as the Dragon Sea. Raising its contents required saturation diving, a crew of 160, and a fleet of boats. The costs were unprecedented. But the potential rewards were equally high: Bound would revolutionize thinking about Vietnamese ceramics, and his partner would make a fortune auctioning off the pieces. Hired as the project's manager, Frank Pope watched the tumultuous drama of the Hoi An unfold. In Dragon Sea he delivers an engrossing tale of danger, adventure, and ambition-a fascinating object lesson in what happens when scholarship and money join forces to recover lost treasure.

Editorial Reviews

Holly Morris
Frank Pope, a protégé of Bound’s and the expedition’s archaeological manager, has written an engaging account that delves into the ethical conundrums of marine salvage, the deadly physics of the deep ocean and the roiling waters of professional subterfuge.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This intense look at the fierce competition in what first-time author Pope slyly calls "the extraordinary underworld of shipwrecks" focuses on the effort in the late 1990s to recover a hoard of precious 15th-century porcelain from the sunken Hoi An ship in the Dragon Sea, a stretch of "typhoon-torn" water off the coast of Vietnam. Pope is equally adept at illuminating "the peculiarly powerful allure of shipwrecks" that drives the Hoi An team as he is in explaining the larger and more difficult context of modern excavation efforts, where "maritime archeologists who were regularly leading excavations around the world could be counted on the fingers of one hand, but the number of looters, souvenir-seekers, and well-equipped treasure-hunters was in the high hundreds." But Pope's strength in detailing the Hoi An story comes from his fascinating in-depth portraits of the main players in what became an unprecedented and expensive recovery effort: Ong Soo Hin, a Malaysian businessman who helped launch the project; Mensun Bound, the director of Oxford's Maritime Archaeological unit; and Dilip Tan, the operations manager under "nightmarish pressure" to finish the project. Pope expertly shows how the same ocean that can terrify and enrich can also "lay bare the very nature of man." (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The lure of buried treasure is always a hard one to pass up. When the treasure is 15th-century porcelain in a ship that sank in the Dragon Sea off the coast of Vietnam, the lure is irresistible. This is marine archaeologist Pope's true-life account of the excavation of the trading junk Hoi An. Pope served as operations manager of the salvage, finding himself trapped between the pull of archaeology and big business and also between two men: Oxford underwater archaeologist Mensun Bound and Malaysian-Chinese businessman Ong Soo Hin, both overflowing with ego, dreams, and their separate expectations for the porcelain treasure. Filled with the fascinating stories of the large international crew of archaeologists, scholars, divers, businessmen, and treasure hunters, Pope's tale defines the environments, personalities, and dangers that now accompany underwater archaeology, where the stakes are tremendously high. While the book has enough excitement and danger for even Indiana Jones (Bound is known as "the Indiana Jones of the Deep"), it also presents some of the tough issues that today's underwater archaeologists must face in a world where technological advances are allowing for the discovery of truly amazing treasures. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Melissa Aho, Metropolitan State Univ., Saint Paul, MN Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut nonfiction account with all the ingredients for a rip-roaring guy's adventure yarn: deep-sea diving, big money, avarice, the allure of medieval Oriental history. In the mid-1400s, a ship stocked with valuable Vietnamese ceramics sank into the South China Sea. Half a millennium later, an ingenious maritime archaeologist and a sharp-eyed Malaysian businessman figured out a way to recover the underwater treasure. The star of this tale is Oxford don Mensun Bound, host of Discovery TV's Lost Ships series. Maritime excavation is expensive, so Bound was delighted by the financial backing of Ong Soo Hin, whose interest, of course, was in eventually selling a portion of the recovered ceramics. (The ethical ambiguities of exporting antiquities to other countries shadow this story.) The author, who worked with Bound on this and numerous other projects, here comes off as knowledgeable and ardent, but not self-indulgent. The dive itself was historic, the deepest archaeological excavation anyone had ever undertaken. (It was also one of the most staggeringly expensive.) A particularly funny scene shows Bound explaining to a diving crew used to cruder salvage operations exactly what archaeological work entails: 12-hour shifts, in which the divers would have to be the archaeologists' "fingers and eyes," not only recovering as much material as possible but also noting where in the ship each piece came from. The text's emotional energy comes from the clash between disinterested academic research and profit-driven commerce; midway through the trip, Bound and Ong Soo Hin found themselves at odds. Readers will find themselves whipping through the last 100 pages, eager to know how-or if-those tensionswere resolved. Has "make me a movie" written all over it. Agent: Claire Paterson/Janklow & Nesbit UK
From the Publisher

"Treasure and typhoons, conflict and greed, plus a cast of intriguing characters and a weighty issue at its heart – Frank Pope’s tale has all the ingredients of a classic thriller. But it’s all true. A stunning debut."--Nicholas Evans, author of THE HORSE WHISPERER
The New York Times

"... an engaging account that delves into the ethical conundrums of marine salvage, the deadly physics of the deep ocean and the roiling waters of professional subterfuge ... Pope's impassioned, detailed reporting draws us into the story of ceramics and Vietnam ..."

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Product Details

Tantor Media, Inc.
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Unabridged CD
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6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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Dragon Sea

A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology, and Greed off the Coast of Vietnam
By Pope, Frank


Copyright © 2007 Pope, Frank
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0151012075

The Archeologist
THE FALKLAND ISLANDS were a lonely place in which to grow up, and young Mensun Bound was often left to his own devices. With only a few hundred settlers scattered across Britain's desolate outpost in the South Atlantic, there were not many other children his age. Whenever the bitter winds and slashing sleet allowed, Mensun would walk over the beaches and low-lying hills, all featureless save for sheltering penguins and windblown huddles of sheep, to sit on the westernmost rocks and watch the sea.
 Squinting into the horizon he would imagine topsails appearing, followed by mainsails and a dark hull, and fantasize about life on board the square-riggers during the Great Age of Sail, the era of exploration, discovery, and adventure. The slate-gray waves were the perfect backdrop for his daydreams as they rolled in from the storms of Cape Horn, some three hundred miles to the southwest, and heaved themselves onto the rocks. Such storms had delivered hundreds of ships onto the island's shores. Some, like the weather-bleached remains of the Charles Cooper that dominated the view from his bedroom window, had been so battered by the Horn that their crews had hauled the leaking hulls up on shore and deserted them. Others had met more dramatic fates and were commemorated by the crosses that scarred theregion's maritime charts.
 In the evenings by a peat fire, Mensun's father would tell tales of shipwrecks and marooned mariners. Mensun's ancestors had been among the first settlers on the islands, drawn by a desire for a Spartan life, close to the elements and away from people. They hadn't been disappointed. In the words of Robert Fitzroy, the captain of Charles Darwin's ship the Beagle, "a region more exposed to storms both in summer and winter it would be difficult to mention." There was no television, no radio; the only contact with the outside world came with the arrival of the supply boat every four or five weeks. Among the luxuries it brought were magazines--National Geographic and History Today--which Mensun scoured for stories involving the sea.
 The South Atlantic permeated every aspect of life on the islands, providing the people with food, work, and contact with the outside world. It also isolated them. As a result, when Mensun was eleven he had to be sent to the mainland to attend school. Relations between the Falklands and their closest mainland neighbor, Argentina, were strained. The South American nation contested Britain's ownership of the islands, so Mensun was sent farther north to the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo. He thrived in the cosmopolitan city, becoming something of a bohemian artist, growing his hair long while nurturing a mounting wanderlust. As soon as he returned to the islands, his school years over, he knew it was time to leave again. Convinced that he was destined for a life at sea, Mensun got himself the only job he could, as the engine-room greaser on a ship, the RMS Darwin. His parents tried hard to dissuade him. The Darwin was a tramp steamer, her itinerary unpredictable, determined only by the destination of her next consignment, and Mensun would be deep in the hull with a grease gun and oilcan for his entire working shift. But his mind was made up: He wanted to wander free across the oceans and into exotic South American ports, seeking to share the experience of the sailors who'd braved Cape Horn before him.
 Mensun's parents need not have worried about losing their son to the engine room. After a year on board, with the vessel moored in the Straits of Magellan, he abandoned ship. Life belowdecks hadn't matched his fantasies of adventure on the high seas. The romantic world of Hornblower was gone, he realized. With only his last paycheck and his duffel bag, he began to hitchhike his way north. Eight months later, in 1971, the Falkland Islander arrived in New York City.
 Having left one of the quietest places on earth less than two years earlier, Mensun now found himself in one of the most frenetic. He reveled in the atmosphere of Greenwich Village, where he began to play bass in a band, absorbing as much as he could of the city's energy. The influence of the metropolis would stay with him even decades later in the form of his ever-present jeans, unkempt hair, and unusually determined attitude. But for all that Mensun had adopted New York, a big part of him remained a Falkland Islander. He often felt out of step with the world, as if he had been born in the wrong era. As a result, whenever modern life got to be too much he would retreat into books about the past, immersed in a world that he felt he better understood.
 When Mensun decided to go back to school, studying history was a natural choice. His lonely youth and the bookishness it had fostered served him well, and he won a full scholarship to study ancient history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His aesthetic streak found an outlet too. In the lectures he attended Mensun realized that art, and pottery in particular, offered a window into the past. Hollowed stones, wood, and sewn skins were all used as containers by prehistoric cultures, but woven baskets and ceramics were much more suggestive of the people who had made them. Pottery's durability meant it persisted long after all other artifacts had disintegrated. Fragments of fired bowls dating from as far back as 6500 B.C.E. have been found in Turkey, while figurines and animal models from about 25,000 B.C.E. have been discovered in the Czech Republic. Except among nomads (for whom pottery was too heavy and fragile to be useful) and those who lived where gourds were plentiful (negating the need for artificial containers), most cultures used pottery in some form. By the time Mensun had progressed from examining the evolution of amphora handle shapes to the painted scenes on Greek glazed pots, he realized he had discovered a passion. He gave up playing bass and took a position as a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Mensun found he could lose himself in ancient history through studying pottery in a way he never could simply by reading about it. The earliest sophisticated ceramics were made by the Greeks. At first they had depicted figures in black against the red ocher of the clay, but sometime around 530 B.C.E. they began to reverse this, painting the background black and leaving the figures red. This meant that the artist was painting with shadow, not light, allowing the figures--usually naked--to be rendered with lifelike accuracy. Beautifully painted characters played out stories of Achilles's victories or of cavorting satyrs; Mensun delighted in translating and interpreting these scenes. The more he studied the pieces, the richer their legends became to him. Soon he could distinguish the styles of many painters, such as Kleitias, Pamphaeus, or Epictetus, without needing to look at the signatures with which they adorned their work.
 Mensun found himself at home in the academic life and soon knew he wanted to contribute to it. Much of ancient art had been discovered on archeological digs prior to being displayed in a museum. By studying archeology rather than art history, Mensun felt he could put himself in the front line of the quest for knowledge, interpreting the past when it was first discovered rather than reinterpreting museum pieces and artifacts from established collections. In 1976, at age twenty-three, Mensun graduated with high honors in ancient history and applied for a master's program at Rutgers that combined classical archeology and art history.
Copyright 2007 by Frank Pope
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Excerpted from Dragon Sea by Pope, Frank Copyright © 2007 by Pope, Frank. Excerpted by permission.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Johnny Heller's narration of this true tale of sunken treasure is a fine fit for Frank Pope's story.... Heller makes nonfiction as thrilling as any action-adventure." —-AudioFile

Meet the Author

Johnny Heller has earned multiple Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine, including one for Closing Time by Joe Queenan, and has earned two Audie Awards and many more nominations. Named one of the Top Fifty Narrators of the Twentieth Century by AudioFile, he has recorded over five hundred titles.

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