Belitung Wreck

Belitung Wreck

At the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore there is a permanent exhibition of the cargo recovered in 1998 from a Persian ship that was wrecked around AD830 in the Java sea on its way back from China. It gives a fascinating insight into how little has changed in 1100 years.

Belitung Route

The main cargo was 60,000 ceramics – most were everyday “IKEA-ware,” some were more refined, and a few experimental. Ceramics were made all over the world but it seems that by the Tang Dynasty China was already able to produce large volumes so much more cost effectively that it was worth traders making long and perilous journeys.

Model ship with its everyday ware cargo
The ship appears to have been made without nails, the planks being stitched together, and it is presumed to have hugged the coasts from Basra round to Guangzhou. The fact that the ship was wrecked near Belitung suggests that it was intending to sell some of its cargo in Indonesia, perhaps then to reinvest the profits in buying spices.

The mass-produced crockery was packed in large earthenware jars with straw.

The designs were simple and quickly executed with brown and green glazes.

This item seems to represent a Middle Eastern face with curly hair, suggesting that at least some of the traders actually made it beyond China’s trading ports and far inland to the production centres themselves.

One of the finer items recovered is this large and delicate pitcher with Persian as well as Chinese motifs.

We have come to think of blue and white tableware as distinctly Chinese, copied by European potteries in the 18th century. But the cobalt used in the blue glaze originally came from Iran. The plate on the right is Iranian: the two on the left were recovered from the wreck and appear to be samples of early Chinese experiments to produce blue and white ceramics for the Middle Eastern market.

Also found were items that presumably belonged to the crew, like this fish-shaped vegetable grater;

playing pieces with a bone die;

… and personal treasures, like this silver box with mandarin ducks representing marital fidelity.

The strangest things recovered were arguably these vessels with a tube on the side that connected to the bottom of the cup underneath a figure of a turtle or bird.

It is thought these were used for drinking through the nose, which the Chinese Song-dynasty poet Fan Cheng Da (范成大) said was an indescribably pleasant experience (云水自鼻入咽,快不可言).