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

by Frank Pope


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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. 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 lesson in what happens when scholarship and money join forces to recover lost treasure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156033299
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 12/03/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Frank Pope has worked on underwater expeditions under the auspices of Oxford MARE (Maritime Archeological Research and Excavation), including the salvage of Lord Nelson’s flagship Agamemnon. He divides his time between London and Nairobi.

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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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword     ix
Prologue: South China Sea, Mid-fifteenth Century     xii
Introduction: Grandchildren of the Dragon     xv
Part 1
The Archeologist     3
The Businessman     25
The Catch     36
A Trial Run     48
The Grinning Mandarin     55
Mensun's Dilemma     62
Part 2
Dockyard Drama     87
Lost and Found     94
The Dragon Stirs     104
A Second Chance     118
Blowdown     127
The First Haul     140
Indulging Mensun     154
The Dragon Strikes     168
Hope and Pray     180
Fresh Blood     184
Ong's Confidence     194
Dividing Loyalties     216
Breaking Point     233
An Ominous Wind     244
Taking Stock     258
Part 3
The Task Ahead     273
The Mandarin's Revenge     283
Academic Attack     295
Final Reckoning     305
Epilogue: The Gibbon & the Sun     319
Acknowledgments     325
A Note on Sources     329
Index     331

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"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

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Dragon Sea: A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology, and Greed off the Coast of Vietnam 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
vernefan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Diving for DragonsIn the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam, author Frank Pope joins archaeologist Mensun Bound, and a large crew of divers and specialists as they locate the shipwreck of a 14th century cargo ship they dub the Hoi An. Pope has the reader totally immersed as he details one of the largest underwater archaeological finds to date. Step by step he brings you into the world of what it takes to begin a maritime recovery endeavor of this magnitude. As you start the early pages Pope pulls you down quickly into the unknown depths and new frontiers that the lure of the sea always brings. The magic realm of what lies beneath sun sparkled crested waves, can soon turn into an abyss of danger if diving protocols and precautions are not adhered to. Starting with a brief history of some of the pioneer divers and oceanographers such as Jacques Cousteau, and of the evolution of the technology and diving equipment they used and developed over the years, Frank Pope swims steadily along as he provides the reader with an up-front and personal look at the many tasks and challenges the crew encounters every inch of the way. From finally finding the Hoi An, and describing every gliche and conquest against what seemed like an endless amount of insurmountable odds, to the end result of finding a treasure that far exceeded what they had expected to unearth beneath the sand, this true story is a top-notch adventure ride. The intended hoard that is expected to be lifted topside is a large cache of close to one million pieces of Vietnamese ceramics. Thousands of hand painted dishes, ewers, pots, boxes, and other items of personal possessions that might have belonged to crew members or passengers, were raised up to the surface day after day for months.With obstacles such as tight budgets, a greedy financer who overworks the divers into sessions of dangerous exhaustion, the fear of improper decompression regulations, multiple high level storms during Typhoon Season, and the curious difficulty of dating the wreck and the uncertainty of whether the treasure is worth hauling up, this book is an informative and an exciting read. Any shipwreck or treasure hunter enthusiast would find this an intriguing book of exploration that offers up both the mystery and thrills of archaeology, as well as a hardnosed realistic point of view of the high price that is paid in both investment of funds, time, and in physical endurance. From the first splash dive to the anti-climactic auction at Butterfield¿s, this an eye-opening read both sensational and scary. I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Sea and only have one small gripe. It needed photographs. The author inserts fanciful hand drawings but a center section of color glossy site and artifact photos would have enhanced the presentation of this book 100%.
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