Ancient Arab Shipwreck Yields Secrets of Ninth-Century Trade
Published: March 7, 2011
SINGAPORE — For more than a decade, archaeologists and historians have been studying the contents of a ninth-century Arab dhow that was discovered in 1998 off Indonesia’s Belitung Island. The sea-cucumber divers who found the wreck had no idea it eventually would be considered one of the most important maritime discoveries of the late 20th century.
The dhow was carrying a rich cargo — 60,000 ceramic pieces and an array of gold and silver works — and its discovery has confirmed how significant trade was along a maritime silk road between Tang Dynasty China and Abbasid Iraq. It also has revealed how China was mass-producing trade goods even then and customizing them to suit the tastes of clients in West Asia.
“Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds,” at the new, lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum designed by Moshe Safdie, presents items from the Belitung wreck. Curated by the Asian Civilisations Museum here and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the show is expected to travel to museums around the world over the next five to six years.
“This exhibition tells us a story about an extraordinary moment in globalization,” said Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “It brings to life the tale of Sinbad sailing to China to make his fortune. It shows us that the world in the ninth century was not as fragmented as we assumed. There were two great export powers: the Tang in the east and the Abbasid based in Baghdad.”
Until the Belitung find, historians had thought that Tang China traded primarily through the land routes of Central Asia, mainly on the Silk Road. Ancient records told of Persian fleets sailing the Southeast Asian seas but no wrecks had been found, until the Belitung dhow. Its cargo confirmed that a huge volume of trade was taking place along a maritime route, said Heidi Tan, a curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum and a co-curator of the exhibition.
Mr. Raby said: “The size of the find gives us a sense of two things: a sense of China as a country already producing things on an industrialized scale and also a China that is no longer producing ceramics to bury.” He was referring to the production of burial pottery like camels and horses, which was banned in the late eighth century. “Instead, kilns looked for other markets and they started producing tableware and they built an export market.”
The first part of the exhibition provides historical context and traces the discovery, recovery and conservation of the salvaged cargo. But it is the second part of the show, where row upon row of similar bowls are displayed, that underscores the importance and size of the find — though only 450 of the 60,000 objects are on display.
Stacked in the dhow, hundreds of tall stoneware jars each held more than a hundred nested Changsha bowls — named after the Changsha kilns in Hunan where they were produced. Of the thousands of hand-painted pieces, almost all carry one of a few set patterns, but these were copied by many hands, resulting in an impression of huge variety.
Not all of the ceramics were mass-produced. Among the most interesting pieces in the exhibition is an extremely rare dish, one of three found in the wreck, with floral lozenge motifs surrounded by sprigs of foliage. They are believed to be the earliest known complete Chinese blue-and-white ceramics.
Ms. Tan, the curator, said: “It demonstrates that the Chinese potters were already experimenting with imported cobalt blue from Iraq, which they applied as underglaze painted decoration, some 500 years earlier than the famous blue and white porcelain of the 14th century.” At the time of the dhow’s discovery, cobalt-blue pigments had been found only in the Middle East, not yet in China, said Alan Chong, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Aside from the rare ceramics, the haul also contained gold and silver objects, some of which Mr. Raby of the Smithsonian described as “of the very best quality you can see, clearly of imperial quality,” adding, “so we believe these were possible diplomatic gifts.”
The form and decorative motifs of an octagonal gold cup — musicians and dancers with long hair and billowing robes — suggest Central Asian metal wares. Mr. Raby said it was believed to be the largest known such gold cup from Tang China, even upstaging, he added, one of the great treasures of Tang gold and silver work: the so-called Hejiacun Hoard, found in what had been one of the southern suburbs of the Tang capital of Xi’an.
The rarity of the cup and its unusual style have puzzled researchers, Mr. Raby said: Why was it aboard the dhow and who owned it? But he said the dhow’s entire cargo raises myriad questions.
A replica of a Hejiacun cup can be seen at the ArtScience Museum in a parallel show, “Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World,” which is at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and is running through March 27. It takes viewers back to the heyday of the Silk Road, when Genghis Khan and his descendants restored order in the 13th century along the loose networks of trade routes that had become too dangerous for merchants. The museum is also showing “Genghis Khan: The Exhibition” until April 10.