The Belitung Cargo: Secrets of the Sea

Square-lobed dish with insects, flowers, knotted ribbons, and swastika (wan, β€œ10,000”) China, Tang dynasty, circa 825-50, gold, 3.5 x 15.5 x 10 cm, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. Photography by Asian Civilisations Museum, Tang Shipwreck Collection

This shipwreck, commonly called the Belitung Cargo, found in 1998, was a 9th-century Arab ocean-going dhow on a commercial round trip voyage between their ports in the Abbasid Empire, which included almost the entire Middle East, and the port of Guangzhou in southern China. Found off Beilitung Island in the Java Sea, the vast bulk of the return cargo was comprised of commercial ceramics, and a few other items, to be sold retail to several ports along the two main sea routes before returning home.

In order to sell as much cargo as possible, the Arab dhows had a choice of the main maritime trade from Guangzhou to Banda Aceti in north Sumatra, on to Galle in present-day Sri Lanka, and in Kollam Khambhat in India before continuing on to the Red Sea ports within the Abbasid Empire.

The secondary route, the one taken by this dhow, detoured to the islands of Indonesia, then Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India before returning to the Abbasid ports. These were the greatest maritime highways in the world at that time, surpassing those that had historically navigated every part of the Mediterranean.

Chinese Ceramics in Shipwrecks

The majority of traffic carried ceramics from China, as well as gold and silver objects. Fragile items such as silks and lacquer would never have survived a sinking and apparently, there are no records mentioning them as cargo. Chinese ceramics were highly prized through all of Asia and the Middle East, not just for their beauty or because of their decorative value, but because they were, at that time and for centuries afterwards, considered a sign of status.

The ceramics that were aboard the wreck comprised almost 100% of the cargo and came from the miscellaneous kilns in Guangdong Province, Yue kilns in Zhejiang, Changsha kilns in Hunan, Gongxian kilns in Henan, and Xing kilns in Hebei.

The Guangdong ceramics, made locally, were large, thick-walled storage jars with a quickly-applied pale green glaze and of no artistic value as their purpose was to provide sturdy protection for fragile cargo and nothing more. Their contents were mainly bowls, ingeniously packed, nested one into the other, in a horizontal circle, one circle atop the other and stuffed with a mass of small sea shells to serve as protection from movement.

Largest Group of Ceramics from the Changsha Kilns in Hunan

The largest group of ceramics in the Belitung Cargo wreck was from the Changsha kilns in Hunan. They were relatively short-lived kilns, lasting from the 6th century until the end of the Five Dynasties period (907-960). On a straw-yellow ground with sloppy green decoration, there are handsome ewers with short spouts and three clusters of inventive decoration.

The bowls, however, are similar with four crescents along the edge which had been dipped in an iron-brown slip, but in the cavetto, the painters let themselves run a bit rampant with fast and fluid brushwork, sometimes depicting star designs, sometimes meandering foliage and sometimes with designs that slightly resemble Arabic script, as well as Chinese inscriptions.

There is one Changsha piece that is unique in the cargo – a tall and oddly proportioned pouring vessel. The sloppy application of its ochre and green design of flowers/foliage is an indication of the poor quality of craftsmanship to which the Changsha kilns had sunk by the 9th century.

Gongxian Pieces in the Belitung Cargo

Gongxian pieces, however, tended to be of more interesting designs, some of which were based on Tang silver and gold shapes. Covered with a white glaze, the ceramics were casually decorated with soft splashes of translucent green and there is one piece here decorated in overglaze blue, known previously only on high-quality Tang figures and vessels.

Ceramics From Other Kilns Discovered

The Xing kilns which created elegantly simple, small pieces of a clear white over a completely white proto-porcellaneous body, were replaced by the Ding kilns at the end of the 10th century. Ding became one of the great kilns favoured by Song emperors and owes its existence to the kiln it copied, the Xing.

The Yue kilns, probably the oldest of the recognised kilns are known for their very thin, pale olive green glazes, which first appeared in its mature form as early as the Six Dynasties period (220-589) and continued for several centuries thereafter. Many bowls were made by the Yue kilns and they dominate the Yue wares found inside the wreck.

Gold and Silver Items from the Belitung Cargo

A very few gold and silver items had been excavated from the site including small gold trays, including one well-worked with a Buddhist svastika on a floral ground. There were also Tang bronze mirrors and gold and silver cosmetic boxes of various shapes, all decorated on the lids with well-proportioned designs of birds amidst foliage. There were so few on board, it is probable that they were used as negotiation tools or as diplomatic gifts.Β  As cosmetic boxes, they would also have been highly prized in the Indian market where cosmetic boxes were a popular commodity.

The Principal Port in China at the Time Was Guangzhou

The principal port in China at the time was Guangzhou, later known in the West as Canton, up the Pearl River from Macao and Hong Kong. There is no way of determining the number of voyages made by these Arab dhows, but it is known that there were over 100,000 Arabs residing in Guangzhou in the 9th century, all engaged in one form or another in the port’s sole business, export.

This might provide an inkling of the great number of transits made from Guangzhou to ports in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India and the Arab world. After all, countless numbers of shards of Chinese ceramics have been excavated in the Cairo city dump.

There have been countless wrecks of commercial vessels discovered in Philippine, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Thai waters and very few of them have been archaeologically surveyed and excavated. This is simply due to the efficient secrecy of local fishermen, who first discover almost all wrecks, as they did this one, and who quickly sell whatever they can bring to the surface.

I personally know of one private collection in Manila comprised of hundreds of pieces of Tang gold, all found in shipwrecks on that country’s western coastlines. It is our great fortune, however, that this wreck mostly escaped the local plunder that plagued so many others.

This exhibition featuring the Belitung Cargo in New York was curated by Adriana Proser from Asia Society Museum who worked closely with theΒ  Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore, where the Khoo Teck Puat Gallery is devoted to the Beilitung Cargo.


From 7 March to 4 June at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, New York NY 10021,Β 

A series of events accompanies the exhibition, including Connecting Empires: Shipwrecks, Ceramics, and Maritime Trade in 9th Century Asia, Asia Society Members Lecture onΒ 7 March by Stephen Murphy, curator at the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore. There is a symposium on the exhibition on 21 and 22 April, co-organised by Tang Center for Early China. More details on