By far the most striking remains found in the Belitung shipwreck are a collection of over 60,000 ceramic dishes. These dishes were produced in tens of thousands using standardised templates by something resembling an assembly line, with teams of workers dedicated to working the clay, shaping, painting, glazing, firing and packing it. After being finished in Changsha in south-central China, they were packed and shipped to the embarkation port of Guangzhou. This consignment consisted of bulk orders placed by West Asian merchants, as revealed by the decorative motifs used on the ceramics, which were similar to examples from Iraq and the Persian Gulf. There were large communities of these merchants in Guangzhou.
Let’s think about how such an enormous shipment could have been arranged. The immigrant merchants in Guangzhou must have had some reliable source of information about ceramic trends in their homelands; perhaps they visited themselves or had relatives and colleagues with whom they corresponded or exchanged goods. Next, there were means of arranging capital for so many ceramics. There must have been some guarantees or surety provided by potential buyers in West Asia, which was transmitted to the merchants in China. Finally, the ship chartered to carry the goods was of Indian or Arab design, crewed by sailors from these regions; this crew must have had considerable knowledge of shipping routes and markets since they were in Guangzhou in the first place. All of this is extremely impressive in a world where international movement depended on the seasons and the ingenuity of sailing technology.
Subscribe for Southeast Asian Archaeology news updates