Shipwrecked: Treasures from the Belitung Shipwreck

While passing through Singapore last year, I finally had the chance to visit the new ArtScience museum and see the Tang treasures from the Belitung shipwreck.

The ArtScience Museum in Singapore
The ArtScience Museum in Singapore


The ArtScience Museum is an unusually-shaped building that draws its inspiration from the lotus, and is part of the Marina Bay Sands casino and resort in Singapore. The museum doesn’t seem to have a permanent collection and instead hosts touring exhibitions from around the world. One of the first exhibitions on display since its opening in February is the debut of the Belitung wreck treasures, entitled Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. The exhibition itself is jointly presented by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian, the Asian Civilisations Museum, and the Singapore Tourism Board. This is the first time that the finds have been publicly displayed, and the ArtScience Museum is the first museum to present the finds in its world tour.

 

Entrance to the exhibition
Entrance to the exhibition
Model of the Belitung ship
Model of the Belitung ship

You may remember that last year I stepped aboard the Jewel of Muscat, a reconstruction of the vessel based on the Belitung shipwreck. You can read my account here. The shipwreck and her cargo is considered interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a vessel that appeared to be of Arab origin, and it was laden with cargo from China, which gives an idea of how extensive maritime trade must have been. Also the cargo dates to around the 9th century, making this shipwreck the oldest for the region.

Changsha Wares meant for the export market
Changsha Wares meant for the export market
Changsha Ware packed in large urns for transport
Changsha Ware packed in large urns for transport

Some of the more spectacular finds were indeed truly spectacular:

The Belitung Ewer stands over a metre tall. Incised around the body is a lozenge motif with leafy fronds, the same West Asian design shown on the green-splashed and blue-and-white dishes displayed nearby. The form is also seen in white ware, but was clearly modelled on metalwork: a similar ewer with a long handle and dragon-head stopper - but older and smaller and in gilded bronze - was preserved at the Horyu-ji Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan.
The Belitung Ewer stands over a metre tall. Incised around the body is a lozenge motif with leafy fronds, the same West Asian design shown on the green-splashed and blue-and-white dishes displayed nearby. The form is also seen in white ware, but was clearly modelled on metalwork: a similar ewer with a long handle and dragon-head stopper - but older and smaller and in gilded bronze - was preserved at the Horyu-ji Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan.
This gold cup is the most important gold object ever found outside China.
This gold cup is the most important gold object ever found outside China.

While spectacular, the exhibition has not been without controversy. There has been debate going on as to whether these finds represent the product of treasure hunting or a successful collaboration between government and commercial interests, and what these perceptions mean for their continued display in institutions such as museums. (I’ve featured some of these discussions in previous posts here)

Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds is on display at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore until 31 July 2011.

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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.

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