The Belitung Shipwreck

Earlier this month, I was able to catch a lecture about the shipwreck laden with Tang Dynasty treasures that sunk off Belitung island in the 9th century. What was it about this shipwreck that made it so spectacular? What treasures were stored aboard the ship and where was it headed? And what did the Belitung Shipwreck tell us about maritime trade n Asia and Southeast Asia at that time?


Earlier this month, I was able to catch a lecture about the shipwreck laden with Tang Dynasty treasures that sunk off Belitung island in the 9th century. What was it about this shipwreck that made it so spectacular? What treasures were stored aboard the ship and where was it headed? And what did the Belitung Shipwreck tell us about maritime trade n Asia and Southeast Asia at that time?

Belitung Shipwreck location

The Belitung Shipwreck was discovered in 1998 – like most shipwrecks, this one was discovered by chance by some fisherman. The wreck rested on relatively shallow waters – about 17 metres below the sea-level and recovery of the wreck took about two years. It is currently the oldest shipwreck in Southeast Asian waters.

The majority of the cargo (some 60,000 pieces) recovered consists of ceramics, most of which are Changsha ware. Changsha ware was mass produced for export in Tang China, and the dates imprinted on a couple of the bowls place the shipwreck from between 826 and 850AD. Other significant finds from the wreck include lead ballasts, some pieces of resin which would have come from Sumatra, pillow-shaped silver ingots, a number of gold vessels and several rare pieces of high-fired blue-and-white, white ware and Yue wares.

The wreck’s construction strongly suggests that the ship was of Arab or Indian origin: stitched hull planks, the lack of wooden dowels or iron fastenings and later, the identification of the wood type. Combined with the large number of export ware, this find suggests the existence of a Maritime Silk Route, a direct trading link between China and the Arab lands as early as the 9th century.

Dr Rosemary Scott, who gave the lecture on the Belitung Wreck in June goes even further to suggest that the wreck is possibly the most important wreck uncovered to date because the evidence strongly suggests the presence of a Maritime Silk Route, rather than through the role of intermediaries like Srivijaya. Besides the ship’s construction, other evidence for this direct link include the small number of Changsha ware inscribed with “salaam” and other Arabic verse, and the presence of the rare ceramics, all of which have a close association with the imperial court. This in turn suggests the importance of this particular cargo as a form of royal tribute. While Changsha ware is found just about everywhere in the ancient world (all the way to India, Persia and the Near East), the Yue and Xing wares have been found only in a handful of Near Eastern sites, including the ancient city of Samarra in Iraq.

An interesting point about the Belitung shipwreck was its location. Ships plying between China and India would have come down the Malacca strait, into the sphere of Srivijaya influence. Ships would possibly call at the Srivijayan capital at Palembang, before sailing to the Riau islands and up north again to China. The Belitung shipwreck is located a little too far south. Given that the majority of the shipwreck’s cargo was mainly for the Persian market rather than the coastal ports of Srivijaya, the ship would bypass the major Srivijayan markets and take an alternative route through the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java), before heading northwest to India – stil Srivijayan territory, but not as important as the ones along the Malaccan strait..

The material for this post was based on my notes during the talk on the Belitung Shipwreck by Rosemary Scott at the National University of Singapore Museum in June 2007, as well as a 2001 paper by Dr. Michael Flecker in World Archaeology.
Books about shipwrecks in Southeast Asia:
The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia by Himanshu Prabha Ray
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

3 thoughts on “The Belitung Shipwreck”

  1. I think that if we take into account Muckelroy’s theory on shipwreck formation it is very bold to base a theory such as the one proposed by Scott. When a ship sinks it is usually a slow process and generally is the consequence of bad weather. Currents and winds could have taken the ship where it lays now. It would be necessary to study the dispersion of the artifacts. Flecker, a guy whose expertise I respect, does not give a detailed plan of the location of the items (at least I haven’t found such map in any of his articles nor in his website). If there is such map, then Scott should use it to interpret the site. Then again, I wasn’t there, did she use these argument in her work?

    By the way, one can purchase the ceramics of the Belitung wreck in Ebay…quite sad!

  2. I don’t remember her using a mp of the wreck to interpret the site – your comment is more informed than mine. =D

    it’s amazing the amount of antiquities one can get off the internet. try searching srivijaya and see what pops up!

  3. It’s a shame, I saw a couple of china bowls in a shop in front of the British Museum. It’s not so much the object itself, but the way it was obtained that bothers me. Looters will stop at nothing and will destroy the context of the site just to get hold of something they can sell in Ebay.

    By the way, while I was in Angkor I found some really interesting red paintings of boats! I asked the people at EFEO and they confirmed that they have never seen them before! Two points for me! 🙂 I’m so excited! I pasted the images in my Flickr, I’ll upload them in my web in the next few days. 🙂

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