Editorial: Tang Treasures, Monsoon Winds and a Storm in a Teacup

“There lived in the city of Baghdad, during the reign of the Commander of the Faithful, Harun al-Rashid, a man named Sindbád the Hammá… for I was a merchant and a man of money and substance and had a ship of my own, laden with great stores of goods and merchandise; but it foundered at sea and all were drowned except me who saved myself on a piece of plank which Allah vouchsafed to me of His favour” (One Thousand Nights and One Nights).


Storm in a Teacup

The adventures of Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Fourty Thieves in One Thousand Nights and One Nights are amongst our most cherished childhood stories, but what if they weren’t entirely make believe? From the improbable setting of the bottom of Indonesia’s Java Sea has risen 21st-century archaeological DNA that puts the oceanic adventures of Sinbad the Sailor across Africa and Asia in a real world historical context. The wreck of the first Arab dhow discovered in Southeast Asian waters has produced clear evidence for direct trade between the Arab world, the western Indian Ocean and China during the latter part of the first millennium.

From striking an isolated reef off Indonesia in the 9th century AD to its display this month in Singapore’s futuristic ArtScience Museum, the Belitung cargo has finally reached port. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds is a major exhibition organized jointly by the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, the Singapore Tourism Board and the National Heritage Board of Singapore that will crisscross the globe in the next five years from Asia to the USA, Europe and Australia, before the ship docks ‘home’ in the Near East a millennium late. Just when the wreck’s salvation from oblivion should be secure and celebrated, like the storm-struck mythical Sinbad himself the physical wreck is again sailing troubled waters.

The 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

The Belitung wreck was tracked down by Seabed Explorations in 1998, when the German company was awarded an excavation license by the Indonesian government. The fieldwork was completed in 1999 and the majority of finds sold in 2005 to the Sentosa Leisure Group for $32 million. A million miles from the spot where the Belitung cargo and hull were at risk from destruction at the hands of looters and fishermen, some Washington scholars are now criticizing the current show for endorsing commercial wreck recovery. Ted Schultz, chair of the National Museum of Natural History Senate of Scientists, believes that “substantial scientific information was lost due to the methods employed” during the excavation. Bruce Smith, a Curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, similarly concludes that “this exhibition would send a very bad message to the public, that the Smithsonian doesn’t stand for the preservation of archaeological resources and that mining archaeological sites is OK.”

These few noisy critics see the recovery of the Belitung wreck as ‘treasure hunting’, which flies in the face of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage’s demand that “underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited”. Are these scholars ethically right to be affronted by the decision to promote this old ship in a travelling exhibition?

From Baghdad To Belitung


The 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

Here’s an alternative way of looking at these turn of events. In the late 20th century local fishermen chanced upon a pile of porcelain at the bottom of the Java Sea and saw a good opportunity to turn a quick buck for their impoverished families. Petty pilfering was nothing new. Shipwrecks off Indonesia are almost always discovered inadvertently by trawlers or line fishermen in open water and by aquarium fish divers and dynamite-fishing divers close to reefs. On this occasion in 1998 it was a sea-cucumber diver who first started harvesting artifacts from the Belitung wreck.

Through the grapevine Seabed Explorations got wind of some old pots and pans that stood out from the majority of ceramics fished up off Indonesia and secured the rights to the site. Such permissions do not come lightly or cheaply. Licences at times have to be rubber-stamped by 22 different government departments, which receive 50% of the salvaged cargo, usually based on proceeds of sale. This political choice is how many countries with low or no funding streams for underwater cultural heritage choose to operate in the Far East.

Even as the wreck excavation proceeded, the site remained at risk. When work closed down during the monsoon season, local divers immediately moved in, sometimes at night, and looted the site once more. Holes were smashed into the sides of large ‘Ali Baba’ jars stacked with hundreds of Changsha bowls that were otherwise too heavy to plunder. Unlike so many wrecks lost to man and machine that we never get to hear about off Southeast Asia, the ship’s narrative nevertheless could be reconstructed thanks to the excavation.

The same is sadly not true for numerous other cases. When the Desaru shipwreck was found off Peninsular Malaysia in 2001 by Nanhai Marine Archaeology, its upper structures and cargo had already been “shaved flat” by trawlers. Despite the placement of a hazard warning buoy over the site, a year later the trawlers were back and archaeologists found the seabed covered with broken planks, displaced bulkhead frames and a long steel chain and parts of a trawl net snagged on the timbers. Three heavy longitudinal beams belonging to the mast support had completely vanished. The energy, politics and personal dedication that go into saving shipwrecks off Southeast Asia are easily overlooked from the comfort of dry land in Washington, where perhaps the risks and realities of fieldwork cannot be easily visualized.

The 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

The destruction of the Belitung wreck by dynamiting, trawling or looting would have been a cultural catastrophe. As John Guy, Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, put it, “Sometimes, an event occurs which dramatically enlarges the boundaries of our knowledge… The discovery of the Tang shipwreck is one such event. This cargo is the most important hoard of Tang artifacts ever discovered at a single site.”

This wreck is literally a one-off. The 60,000 Tang-period objects conserved in Indonesia and New Zealand have rightly been described as the most important marine archaeological discovery ever made in Southeast Asia. The ship’s cargo mostly comprised Chinese ceramics from the kilns of Changsha in Hunan, with a small consignment of fine Yue white-and-green-splashed ware. Three blue-and-white dishes are the earliest intact examples of the Chinese style ever found. Large green-glazed jars from Guangdong were used to stow some of the Changsha bowls, as well as perishable goods.

The cargo includes 763 identical inkpots, 915 spice jars and 1,635 ewers apparently made to order in at least five kilns strewn across China. There was nothing provincial about the eclectic cargo, which cleverly catered for the global market – something for everyone. Some objects featured Buddhist lotus symbols and motifs from Central Asia and Persia, while geometric decorations and Koranic inscriptions were clearly geared towards Islamic markets.

What is so original about the Belitung wreck is that this was no bulk-carrying Chinese junk, examples of which are well known. Alongside the mainstream ceramics were exotic wares and gold and gilt-silver vessels, perhaps imperial gifts. A Persian dancer clapping her hands above her head and musicians playing various instruments adorn the largest Tang dynasty gold cup ever discovered. A pair of mandarin ducks decorating a silver flask, symbols of matrimonial harmony, and the repeat presence of pairs of birds, deer and ibexes on other ornamental boxes point towards these exotic gifts being shipped to the Persian Gulf for a royal wedding. An incised Chinese bowl dates the probable year of the voyage to AD 826.

Detail of a monumental ewer, 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

The Belitung cargo may be entirely Chinese in origin, but unlike the common Chinese imports of pepper and spices, organic finds reveal that the vessel was also carrying Illicium verum, the Chinese export spice star anis. The ship was clearly outgoing rather than incoming. But to where? Dr Michael Flecker’s study and publication of the hull, with its 15.3 metre intact keel, reveals that the ship is similar to Arab dhows of the Middle East. External hull planks and internal frames were all lashed together with cord, probably coconut-husk fiber. This form of technology evolved in the reef-strewn shallows of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf with its small, high-energy breaking waves by giving vessels greater flexibility than ships built with wooden dowels or iron nails. Crucial analysis of the wood species by Professor Nili Liphschitz of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University identified the frames, stempost, hull planks, anchor shank and dunnage all to have relied on Afzelia Africana, African mahogany. Dr Flecker argues convincingly that the Belitung ship was most probably constructed in Yemen or Oman in the Middle East, where traditional sewn-plank boats had been in use since Roman times.

Through a single site excavation, the Belitung wreck has revolutionized what we thought we knew about Early Islamic long-distance trade. In the history of marine archaeology it is to Southeast Asia what the Late Bronze Age Cape Gelidonya and 7th-century AD Yassi Ada sites are to the Mediterranean Sea in terms of groundbreaking new data about respectively Canaanite trade and the all-encompassing use of mortise-and-tenon technology for shipbuilding.

In the 9th-century the world economy was driven by two powerful engines: Tang dynasty China, an empire stretching from the South China Sea to the borders of Persia, and Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid dynasty from AD 762 onwards, that controlled peoples and commerce as far as the Indus River to the east and Spain to the west. Until the Belitung wreck came to light, historians assumed that Tang China trade pounded the dusty Silk Road though Central Asia. We now know that a more efficient Maritime Silk Route linked these two economic powerhouses. The latest research suggests that the Belitung wreck was outward bound from Guangzhou to the Middle Eastern port of Al Basrah, modern Basra in Iraq, the home country of Sinbad the Sailor, when disaster struck.

Saving the Deep

Changsha ewers from the 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

So here’s how I envisage the Belitung shipwreck. A site of the highest international importance, saved by the passion for the past and commercial astuteness of the government of Indonesia and Seabed Explorations that is turning on its head though fresh primary data centuries of historical presumptions – exactly what archaeology is supposed to do. Who could have foreseen, for instance, that in the ship’s three cobalt-blue underglaze painted dishes – a decorative scheme previously known from the Middle East, but not China in this period – that the Belitung wreck would reveal a likely Iraqi inspiration for China’s eventual ‘trademark’ blue and white porcelain that went on to rule the world.

No excavation on land and especially conducted beneath the sea is ever perfect, and I see no evidence that crucial information was lost at Belitung in the search for shiny stuff. The part of shipwrecks that critics of commercial ventures often rightly argue are destroyed or dismissed, the hull, has already been long published by Dr Flecker in an international journal. Was key data really lost during the underwater dig or was it just the commercial angle of the site’s management that left a Tang taste hanging over some of Washington’s ivory towers?

The Belitung wreck is not just a cracking discovery, it is also a symbol of cross-border unity, which I find uplifting and encouraging: an ‘Arab’ ship sailing from China to the Islamic Middle East excavated by a German company under Indonesian license, whose crucial wood identification was achieved by a Jew in an Israeli university laboratory. Doesn’t that sound like a fitting definition of Rule 8 of the Annex of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, whereby “International cooperation in the conduct of activities directed at underwater cultural heritage shall be encouraged in order to further the effective exchange or use of archaeologists and other relevant professionals”?

Silver boxes from the 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

As George Yeo, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said in his opening speech to the ‘Tang Treasures’ exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, becoming the second government to give the wreck project the seal of approval, “In that cargo, sitting side by side, were Buddhist pieces and Islamic pieces. The mirror, which was an ancient mirror from the Han Dynasty, had the Ying-Yang, and the Taoist hexagram, the Ba Gua. They were all there. It was an age when different religions and different cultures met, and people rejoiced in trade. Those who invested in it, those who were a part of it, derived great wealth. So in a strange way, though the cargo is about the 9th century, it is also about the 21st century. And therefore I commend it to the world.”

Wrecks like these should be ‘feel good’ factors at times when the world has very serious and painful natural, economic and civil disasters to contend with. The world is imperfect and every day below the waves cultural heritage gets sacrificed as a by-product of dredging, fisheries and even sea cucumber diving. As a poorly resourced discipline, truth be told marine archaeology needs all the help it can get to save even a miniscule part of the past. This is especially the case in Southeast Asia, where, as Dr Flecker has discovered first-hand, since “most wreck-sites are threatened with looting or outright destruction, the priority must be to document those sites and the artefacts recovered from them before too much information is lost. The disposition of the artefacts after thorough documentation, while of great importance, should not dictate policy, for if commercial transactions are banned outright, the finders will be driven underground, and there will be no hope of archaeological intervention… Until cultural awareness gains the upper hand over profits and politics, this may be the best argument to ensure that irreparable damage is not done to the non-renewable resource of historic shipwrecks in Southeast Asia.”

A gold plate from the 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

While it is healthy and right to question standards, from most enlightened perspectives the concern over Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds is a storm in a teacup. It hardly needs stating that no European and American museum collection is whiter than white. Commerce emerges as an essential part of cultural resource management today, just as it has been in filling the world’s museums with wonders. Without Lord Carnarvon’s deep pockets we would have no tomb of Tutankhamun, and through Lord Elgin’s exuberance London would not be home to the Parthenon marbles, bought by the British government for £35,000 in 1816. Even today, reality dictates that international blockbusters call on the likes of Mitsubishi, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, BP and Credit Suisse to sponsor archaeological events for public education and entertainment. Like it or not, commerce defines real world cultural synergy.

Julian Raby, Director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, takes a long-term philosophical view of his new exhibition. “It is my sincere hope that this traveling exhibition… will encourage both the public and politicians in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region to value their maritime heritage”, he suggests. “The Singapore Government’s commitment in purchasing the cargo, and, surely, in creating a home for it on its return will hopefully be the catalyst for investment across the region in the structures and institutions that can best study and preserve the underwater archaeological record.”

Just as the distant memory of Sinbad the Sailor inspired for centuries One Thousand and One Nights, and future art and culture in the form of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Edgar Allan Poe’s Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade, not to mention ‘Sinbart the Sailor’ in The Simpsons, so the Belitung wreck’s safe recovery from the deep might too be talked about by society for centuries to come.

Further Reading

Michael Flecker, ‘A 9th-century Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesian waters’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 29.2 (2000), 199-217.

Michael Flecker, ‘The Ethics, Politics, and Realities of Maritime Archaeology in Southeast Asia’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 31.1 (2002), 12-24.

Michael Flecker, ‘A 9th-century Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37.2 (2008), 384-86.

Sean Kingsley, ‘The Unexcluded Past. Managing Shipwreck Archaeology’, Minerva 12.1 (2010), 37-44.

Sean Kingsley, ‘Into the Abyss: Deep-Sea Shipwrecks, Science & Scandal‘, Current World Archaeology 33 (February/March 2009), 34-43.

Regina Krahl, John Guy, J. Keith Wilson and Julian Raby (eds.), Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds (Smithsonian Books, 2011).

Underwater Cultural Heritage & UNESCO in New Orleans(Odyssey Marine Exploration Papers 13, 2010).

Categories: Editorials | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Editorial: Tang Treasures, Monsoon Winds and a Storm in a Teacup

  1. • An excellent and thoughtful editorial. I commend your vision and position in publishing such an editorial. The realities of shipwreck exploration are poorly understood by academics sitting in institutions oft times separate from such realities by both lack of experience, and time away from this changing field. Any competent professional historic shipwreck recovery group in existence today will have to come up to some rigorous standards set in permitting and laws. The tempest in the teapot as you called it is the outrage of an old guard that must adapt to changing times and economics if they have any hope of accomplishing even a small fraction of the preservation they so dearly wish for. To do this a wide range of strategies and modalities must be considered – the private sector can and does do remarkable work that includes archaeology, but their efforts should not be judged solely by archaeologists. If that were the case then shipwrecks and their cargos would be the exclusive domain of archaeologists and that is most certainly not the case nor should it be.
    Jim Sinclair, MA

  2. “The artifacts, have now been revealed to the world with the assistance of the Smithsonian Institution; and thanks to Tilman Walterfang’s ethical philosophy, the cargo was not sold off piece by piece to collectors; rather, it was kept intact as one entire collection, so that it could be studied in its original context. Walterfang kept the precious cargo in private storage for years, where they have been painstakingly desalinated, studied and carefully conserved.”  

    ~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ArtScience_Museum#Belitung_shipwreck_treasure
    ~ http://tilmanwalterfang.org
    ~ https://wreckwatch.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/editorial-tang-treasures-monsoon-winds-and-a-storm-in-a-teacup/

  3. T. Britten

    Certainly an intelligent and erudite article. Much preferable to all the crazy stuff posted elsewhere. Thx.

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