Cultural Selection: The Maritime Silk Road Wares of the Tang Shipwreck

© Asian Civilizations Museum

In 1998, a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Belitung Island, Indonesia, by local fishermen. It contained a cargo of somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 objects, predominantly ceramics produced in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE)[1]. The wreck constituted the largest single collection of Tang Dynasty artefacts to be found. As well as ceramics, the cargo included luxury trade wares made of gold and silver, including cups, jewellery boxes and mirrors, many of which had been specifically tailored to a Western Asian market. These trade wares revealed a number of things about the scale and complexity of maritime trade routes and the depth of cross-cultural interactions and interconnectivity between Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate of the 9th century CE.

Many design features of the ship, including the fact that it had been built without nails with planks sewn together with hibiscus and sealed with wadding to make it waterproof, indicate that it originated from somewhere in the Persian Gulf or the west coast of the Indian Subcontinent. The ship would have been sailing from somewhere in the Abbasid Empire, possibly Basra in present day Iraq, to China and sank on its return journey whilst transporting Chinese wares back. The ship itself was relatively small, only about 18 metres. However, its large cargo of over 60,000 objects is indicative of the scale of the trade of the Maritime Silk Roads. These goods were assembled from Yangzhou China with the ceramics tightly packed into large jars containing up to 150 pieces, a packing method that protected most of the cargo from damage.

The objects recovered from the shipwreck, some of exceptional rarity, testify to the creativity of artists and merchants, and reveal the lengths to which consumers would go to obtain such commodities. Specific wares found on board included blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, which was painted with a Persian style design made from a blue cobalt glaze, with cobalt mined in the Iranian Plateau. The design motifs on these were popular in West Asia and were copied by Chinese crafters.

The ship’s cargo was predominantly ceramics, small plates, made in Changsha, China (referred to as Changsha ware), each hand painted with a different design in greens and brown/reds. The volume of the ceramics on board reveals an ability to mass produce goods for export to foreign markets. Some of these ceramics were decorated with calligraphy or poetry, for which the Tang Dynasty was famous. Others were decorated with designs inspired by the natural world including fish, flowers, birds and mountains.

A good example of some of the more luxury wares the ship was transporting includes an octagonal cup decorated with Musicians and Dancers, which was also produced in Yangzhou, China. These decorative motifs probably depict the court entertainment of Tang China, which often involved performers from Central Asia. Another unique ware found on board was a Dragonhead ewer (a large ornate jug for carrying water), nearly 1 metre in length with a design modelled on Western Asian metal ware and with a ‘lozenge’ pattern popular in Iran and Iraq, but decorated with a Chinse style dragon head on top. Goods such as the dragonhead ewer are indicative of the ways in which Tang, China and Abbasid tastes and aesthetics were combined to produce unique objects for trade via the Silk Roads.

The wares found in the cargo of the Tang Shipwreck reveal both the scale and sophistication of the trade occurring in the 9th century between Tang China and the Abbasid world. They provide clear examples of the hybridity of consumer culture and of a cosmopolitan climate of exchange. Here materials such as Cobalt from the Iranian plateau, production techniques in Chinese ceramics, and the aesthetic tastes of the markets in Tang China and Abbasid West Asia, combined to produce unique trade wares. These included blue and white porcelain with Persian and Arabic design and hybrid objects like the dragonhead ewer. Importantly, the discovery of the Tang Shipwreck was an important turning point in the recognition of the role of the Maritime Silk Roads during the 9th century CE.  


See Also

Illustrations of Literary Exchange along the Silk Roads

The Exchange of Musical Instruments along the Silk Roads

Early Medieval Turkic Manuscripts along the Silk Roads

Chinese WuShu along the Silk Roads

Traditional Medieval Indian Sea-Charts

Intercultural Elements of the Silk Roads in Korean Buddhist Art

Indian and European Influences on Persian Miniatures

Coastal Ornamental Patterns in Java Island

Central Asian Influences in Korean Music

[1] Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), Singapore


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