Sometime around 830-840 AD a merchant ship set sail, most likely from the Chinese port of Yangzhou, or perhaps from Guangzhou further south, following a well established maritime trade route through southeast Asia, via Java, towards the Arabian Gulf, where it was probably heading towards Basra, then the principal port of the Abbasid Caliphate, in modern day Iraq. The ship was carrying a large cargo of ceramics – some 70,000 pieces were tightly packed inside its hold, along with other, more precious goods such as finely crafted items of gold and silver, plus 29 bronze mirrors, as well as more perishable commodities, such as spices and probably textiles too (silk was certainly used as a currency at this time). However, the ship never reached its intended destination, as it was wrecked en route in the Java Sea, some 600 km south of Singapore.
The wreck was discovered in 1998, not far from the Indonesian island of Belitung, by fishermen diving for sea cucumbers. Given that the wreck was located in shallow waters and less than 3 kms from the shore it was very vulnerable to looting and accidental destruction, consequently the Indonesian government authorised a salvage company to recover the 9th century ship’s cargo. This recovery operation took place over two seasons. The importance of the wreck, despite its having been subject to commercial salvage rather than a more scientific programme of archaeological excavation, was noted and hence, in order to preserve the assemblage as a whole, the cargo was purchased by Singapore with the purpose of making it available to the peoples of the wider Southeast Asia region in a public museum. Accordingly, the contents of the wreck were first put on temporary display at Singapore’s Art Science Museum in 2011 (you can read an interesting and thought-provoking review of that exhibition, and the controversial issues surrounding the original acquisition of the wreck’s contents, by Rachel Leow on her blog here and here). Now, nearly five years later the Belitung shipwreck has at last found its final berth in a new permanent gallery at Singapore’s excellent Asian Civilisations Museum. This new display was opened to the public last month by Ms Grace Fu, Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. I was lucky enough to be invited to the opening ceremony.
For anyone visiting Singapore who has an interest in art and archaeology, the Asian Civilisations Museum is a must-visit site. Built in 1865 the Neoclassical building, which originally housed the offices of the British colonial government, has recently been undergoing a transformation. Last month saw the opening of the first of the Museum’s “New Spaces” with the T’ang Shipwreck gallery as its centrepiece. The shipwreck is clearly being showcased as an important marker for modern Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations. As one of the texts accompanying the display attests: “Singapore lies between two oceans, along a busy sea route running from the Middle East to India, Southeast Asia, and China. This network rivalled the more famous Silk Route through Central Asia. Glass was brought from the Middle East, cotton from India, spices and wood from Southeast Asia, and ceramics and silk from China. These economic ties led to the exchange of artistic ideas, and to contacts between peoples of different cultures.
The Tang Shipwreck reveals that Singapore’s region lay at the heart of a global trading network in the 9th century. The success of Singapore as an exchange point of global shipping thus has ancient roots. The beautiful objects of exceptional rarity testify to the ingenuity of artists and merchants, and show that exotic objects have long been appreciated by the world’s consumers.”
Paeans to ancient precursors of modern consumerism and political agendas aside (see here for a recent article on maritime archaeology and modern day nationalism), the actual analysis of the antiquities recovered from the Belitung shipwreck has revealed some fascinating information. It is claimed that “not a single nail or dowel was used to construct the ship,” instead it was made from wooden planks which had been sewn together with rope made from coconut husks and caulked with wadding and lime. Scientific tests have shown that the wood came from Africa, and that later repairs were made in a variety of materials sourced from other far distant places, such as India and parts of Southeast Asia. All this suggests that the ship was a dhow, plying a trade route of immense distance from the Arabian Gulf to China, returning with a cargo which gives us a window onto the commercial web which networked the Abbasid and Chinese Empires together, most likely via the maritime hub of Palembang, the capital of Srivijaya in Sumatra (Java) – arguably the Singapore of its day.
The ship’s cargo attests to the almost industrial scale of output from certain Chinese kilns of the period, particularly that of Changsha in Hunan province, of which, some 57,500 pieces have been recovered from the Belitung wreck. Plus highly prized celadon wares, green-splashed wares from the Gongxian kilns of Henan, and beautiful white-glazed wares from the Xing kilns of northern China, all of which have also been discovered at other sites in Asia and the Islamic Middle East. Many of these ceramics were packed into larger ceramic vessels, tightly coiled and padded out with straw, these jars contained up to 130 bowls each. This method of packing was highly successful and undoubtedly also ensured that many of the ceramics remained preserved intact on the seabed. In total the ceramics from the ship weighed around 25 tons.
Many of these bowls are now on open display in the gallery, but why they have been mounted on long metal stems making them look like a large abstract field of poppies, or so many plates spinning on poles, is a modern design mystery which no one I asked could fathom. Thankfully the displays and accompanying texts give adequate context and explanation. The spacious gallery is light and airy with large windows looking out, rather appropriately, onto the waters of nearby Boat Quay, where on my first visit I saw dragon boat races being held. I’m told that once all the redevelopments are complete this area will become the new entrance to the Museum, hence the T’ang shipwreck will be the first gallery the visitor encounters.
The rest of the Museum is filled with a wonderful array of artefacts from many different cultures and wide-ranging regions across Asia. The sculptures of the Ancient Religions room, including several pieces from the ancient cultural crossroads at Gandhara (in modern day Pakistan), such as the magnificent monumental terracotta head of a bodhisattva with a mass of curly hair, are not to be missed. Plus, the two Southeast Asia rooms are crammed with such a variety of fascinating treasures that I became completely engrossed and lost all track of time. The room dedicated to the “Chinese Scholar” is an exquisitely evocative new addition to the Museum too. I’m looking forward to returning next summer to see what other transformations will have taken place by that time.