Ninth-century shipwreck off Indonesia proves direct link to China

In 1998, an Indonesian sea cucumber diver stumbled upon a pile of pottery, mostly bowls and evens, on a flat, featureless seabed.

The distinctively colored pottery was easily identified as coming from Changsha kilns in Hunan Province, China, which operated during the Tang dynasty (618-907).

Indeed, the earliest known dated example from Changsha (not part of this consignment) has an iron oxide inscription that reads kaichen san nian jou yue (third year of the Kaicheng era), corresponding to 838 AD.

The sea cucumber diver and his companions sold the site location to the German company Seabed Explorations GBR, which had a research and excavation license issued by the Indonesian government.

The company conducted excavations in September and October 1998. Work was suspended for the duration of the northwest monsoon and resumed in April 1999.

The fact that this very ancient and important for history wreck was found only in 1998 is surprising. It is only 4 nautical miles north of Belitung Island’s main town and port, Tanjung Pandan, and less than 2 nautical miles offshore, at a position of 2º 41′ S, 107º 35′ E.

The depth at this location is only 17 meters, with fairly clear water on the muddy sandy bottom. The mound of sediment was more than one meter above the surrounding seabed, with a few coral conglomerates towering over it.

The remains of the ship’s hull were about 1 meter below seafloor level or 2 meters below the top of the mound. The area is frequented by fishermen and sea cucumber divers, but is free of commercial shipping because of the extensive reef system.

It is more than likely that Batu Hitam (Indonesian for “Black Rock”) reef, located only 150 meters northwest of the wreck site, was the cause of the shipwreck.

About 250,000 artifacts were recovered, 65% of which consisted mainly of Chinese pottery, but also ceramics from other parts of Asia. 10% consisted of Middle Eastern and Indian glass and gemstones, and the rest consisted of ingots, iron, and other metals.

The ship was identified as a West Austronesian vessel about 30 m long, possibly built in the Malacca Straits area. A number of repairs visible on the remains of the hull indicate that the ship had been in use for a considerable amount of time before sinking. 

The cargo stowage pattern indicates that most of the pottery was taken on board at ports in southern China, most likely at Guangzhou, where the Nanhan kingdom, one of the ten southern kingdoms of the Five Dynasties era, was ending around this time; Kendi and fine paste ware vases from the Satingpra/Isthmus Kra area, found in the upper layers of the site, suggest a stop there; Middle Eastern glassware and semi-precious stones and Malay tin were added during a stop in one of the southern Sumatran ports of the Srivijaya Federation. Analysis of the Chinese coins in the cargo allows us to attribute the sinking to about A.D. 970.

The salvaged artifacts were auctioned off in 2006, with rescuers subsequently splitting the sale 50-50 with the Indonesian government. 

Given the importance of the find to the study of economics and the history of trade and maritime archaeology, experts, historians and archaeologists have urged the Indonesian government to keep most of the contents of the wreck intact. The government decided to keep 10 percent of the 76,000 artifacts found in the collection of an Indonesian museum.

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