The Maritime Silk Road: The Lost Dhow

Cast gold cup with chased decorations, China. 825-50. The drinking of grape wine was a habit that came from West Asia

IN 1998, an Arab dhow carrying goods from Tang-dynasty China was discovered in the Indian Ocean off Belitung Island, Indonesia. Dating from the 9th century, the shipwreck is the earliest Arab vessel of this period to be found with a complete cargo, including intricately worked silver and gold vessels, bronze mirrors, jars once filled with valuable spices, and thousands of ceramic bowls and ewers – traded along the Maritime Silk Road.

This cargo provides the earliest evidence of a Maritime Silk Route, and of a vibrant exchange of ideas, technologies and of course goods between Tang-dynasty China (618-907) and the third Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), which from Baghdad ruled over an empire that extended from Egypt to Central Asia.

The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route is an exhibition at Toronto’s recently opened Aga Khan Museum, lent by the Asian Civilisation Museum of Singapore. It is also the title of a companion book combining art, history and marine archaeology. It is an enthralling tale by Simon Worrall, whose references are often contemporary, lively and amusing.

The Tang Equivalent of Tuppaware

When he first saw the artefacts dredged up from the dhow, he describes a dog-shaped stoneware paperweight ‘so lifelike that I half expected it to start barking. A die made out of bone looked exactly like one you could find in Las Vegas today’. The die was probably used by the crew for gambling. Commenting on the vast majority of the 60,000 artefacts (around 57,500 Changsa ceramic bowls fired on an industrial scale in ‘dragon kilns’), he says: ‘These were the Tang equivalent of Tupperware’.

Describing the variety and profusion of designs on vessels decorated with copper-green and iron-brown colours, he comments on the yunqi, or cloud scrolling, the Buddhist symbols, snatches of poetry, the profusion of flower and leaf patterns. ‘It is as though someone said to the potters: Express yourselves! … Each design is executed with deft, spontaneous strokes, not unlike a piece of graffiti by Banksy. They feel modern, abstract, as though they had been created only yesterday in Shanghai’.

Cross Cultural Exchange Between Tang China and the Arabian and Persian Worlds

The exhibition and book play up the lively cross-cultural exchange between Tang China and the Arabian and Persian worlds, whose sea-borne trade had been thriving certainly since the 7th century, and probably for millennia before that. Around 200 pieces of rare white Yue ware made in northern China in the famous Xing kilns in Hebei Province were also salvaged.

Tang-Dynasty Shipwreck Ceramics

These high-fired wares approach porcelain in translucency and hardness, an innovation in Tang technology. They were as highly prized by Chinese aristocrats and the imperial court as silver and gold, and only marginally less valuable than silk. They were also coveted in foreign markets, particularly West Asian and Arab, inspiring local versions.

Three dishes among the first intact examples of Chinese blue-and-white ware ever found graphically illustrate the narrative of cross-cultural interaction. Cobalt, mostly sourced from Iran, was painted onto white glazed ware, a technique first developed in the early 9th century by Iraqi potters at Basra. These three plates were ‘commercial samples’ says Worrall, but they did not catch on at the time.

However, later on, during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, desire for blue-and-white porcelain soared, and one sees fragments on Omani shores, from which frankincense, highly valued in East Asia, was exported on dhows. In turn, Chinese blue-and-white inspired ceramics from Iran to Turkey, Dutch Delft to Portuguese faience.

Silver and Gold Artefacts

Silver and gold artefacts were the ‘bling’ of Tang society, as Worrall remarks, used to reward cronies and buy favours. ‘The precious vessels on board,’ writes French scholar François Louis, ‘link the ship to the wealthiest members of the Tang ruling elite of around 830, if not to the imperial court itself’.

They were probably manufactured in Yangzhou, an important trading hub and port, also believed to be the departure point of the dhow. Similarly to ceramic manufacture, production of gold and silver objects was on an almost industrial scale. A spectacular silver flask found on the wreck stands nearly 30 centimetres high, chased with mandarin ducks. Splendid gold artefacts were discovered too, such as an oval bowl decorated with flowers, knotted ribbons and insects.

An Octagonal Gold Cup

An octagonal gold cup tells a cross-cultural tale of a different complexion to the Tang/Abbasid one. Linking these two halves of the world’s economy at that time were the much better known Silk Road and its oceanic counterpart, the Maritime Silk Route. Arab and Persian ships heading out from the Gulf carried incense and other aromatics, medicines and dyes, swords and horses, the latter as far as India.

Spices Along the Maritime Silk Road

There they might pick up teak and other hardwoods, and then much further east, spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and cloves from the Spice Islands (the Maluku Islands). From China, Arab and Persian traders imported star anise spice, silk, tea, paper, ink and ceramics. The silk went overland, light and easily rolled up. But the Silk Road was far too hazardous for the conveyance of crockery on camels, so above every other trading item, the Maritime Silk Route transported ceramics, not silk, and should be called the ‘Maritime Ceramics Route’ Worrall suggests.

The Silk Road passed through Central Asia and the octagonal gold cup on board the dhow is decorated with dancers and musicians robed in a style clearly neither Chinese nor Arab. The region around Samarqand and Tashkent was famous for its wine, women and song, the most popular Central Asian dance of the era known as the Sogdian Whirl, or hutengwu.

How Did the Contents Resurface?

So how did the contents of the ‘lost dhow’ surface? In 1998, two sea-cucumber divers came across a mound of sand and coral below the surface of the Java Sea. Worrall vividly describes the discovery: ‘Digging a hole in one side of the mound, they pulled out a barnacle – an encrusted ceramic bowl. Then another. And another’.

They had stumbled upon the oldest and most important marine archaeological discovery ever made in Southeast Asia, whose salvage took two seasons. It is estimated that this dhow was packed to the gunnels with about 70,000 artefacts, of which approximately 60,000 were recovered from the wreck. Luxury goods for export as far as Arabia might be expected, but amongst the cargo were 800 inkpots.

Inside tall earthenware jars were rows of Changsa bowls separated by straws and cushioned by bean sprouts acting as an organic bubble wrap. All the ceramics were perfectly preserved due to the silt that covered the dhow where it sank. Worrall writes exultantly: ‘Washed off with a sponge, their glazes shone as brightly as the day they came out of the kilns more than 1,200 years ago.’

However, the cache of gold and silver items found at the stern of the ship (possibly in the captain’s cabin), was badly corroded and covered in coral growth, requiring almost three years of restoration.

The Decoration on the Ceramics

The decoration of the ceramics reveals the eclecticism of the global market of the time – something for everyone. As well as motifs from Central Asia, Iran, India and geometric designs aimed primarily at Muslim customers, there were Buddhist symbols and lotus leaves.

Worrall enjoys himself, evoking the potential allure of the 29 bronze mirrors whose details demonstrate the commercial acumen of Tang manufacturers: ‘Looking for something restrained? How about this one with simple floral reliefs, Madam? Want something a bit splashier (and expensive)? This lion and grapevine motif is all the rage in Chang’an just now. You’ll be the talk of Baghdad… Yangzhou’s mirrors were the Versace of looking glasses’.

One of the Changsa bowls on board was inscribed with the date of its firing – 826 in the Western calendar, and probably the departure date of the dhow, since goods did not sit around on Chinese wharfs for long. Carbon-14 analysis of organic material found in the shipwreck of structural wood, frankincense (gum resin) and star anise confirm this date.

The Dhow Used for the Maritime Silk Road

The dhow, which was 58ft long and 21ft wide, was made of steam-shaped planks of African hardwood and teak, as well as rosewood, juniper and palm wood. These were stitched together with hibiscus fibre, a method of construction used by Arab, Persian and Indian shipbuilders until the Portuguese introduced iron nails in the 15th century. Coconut-fibre wadding was placed under the stitching inside and outside the hull, with a sealing of chunam, a blend of hydrated lime and rendered goat fat to waterproof it.

Crews of such dhows that plied the oceans were predominantly Arab and Persian; Chinese mariners were mostly involved in short-haul trading. No human remains were found on this dhow, so it is presumed that everyone managed to escape to an island nearby. But neither were there any logbooks or other documents like maps, diaries or passenger lists to show the destination or purpose of conveying this priceless cargo.

Was it an Imperial Gift?

Was it an imperial diplomatic gift? Could it have been a dowry for a royal marriage politically advantageous to parties on both sides of the world? The courtiers and merchants of the Abbasid capital of Baghdad certainly had cultivated tastes for the luxurious and the exotic. It was a golden age of Muslim learning, sophistication and civilisation – the cultures that its armies overran were assimilated, not eradicated.

The large number of bowls with Islamic motifs certainly suggests that the dhow was bound for the Gulf on the Maritime Silk Road. But why then did it founder off Indonesia, southeast of the fastest sailing route through the Straits of Malacca? Possibly the immediate destination was the Srivijayan kingdom which controlled not only Java and Sumatra, but also the spice trade. At that time nutmeg and cinnamon were worth more per ounce than gold.

Numerous motifs on the artefacts symbolise matrimony, particularly on the silver items, such as four boxes decorated with pairs of mandarin ducks, a traditional symbol of fidelity. How appropriate for a woman about to cement political ties through marriage.

A cosmological bronze mirror is embellished with the symbols of Yin and Yang – feminine and masculine. An engraved gold bracelet could have belonged to a Tang princess on board the ill-fated dhow. Did she swim ashore or drown at Black Rock, a victim of international diplomacy? The real story of this enigmatic dhow is indeed lost.


The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route until 26 April at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Catalogue available.