Visit to Asian Civilisations Museum – Part 2

Tang Shipwreck Gallery

by Saida Dasser

This Gallery, on the First Level of ACM (Asian Civilisations Museum), tells the story of trade through the Tang shipwreck. The story begins in the 9th century when it was already a part of an earlier era of globalization. So let’s learn more about this shipwreck.

The Tang Shipwreck, discovered off Belitung Island in Indonesia in 1998 has revolutionized the way we see the world in the 9th century. It provides an early evidence for the bulk trade between China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East during that period.

Trade was over land and sea, linking diverse parts of Asia. As ships could carry a much greater load than camels could, the maritime route from East Asia through Southeast Asia to South and West Asia became more important, with the Gulf serving as an important hub.

The sea trade made mass exports of heavy, fragile Chinese ceramics possible for the first time.

The ninth-century was dominated by two great powers: The Arab Abbasid (750 -1258) (covering Iran, Iraq, and surrounding regions) and the Chinese Tang (618–907) dynasties.

The ship

The ship itself was Arab by construction – an Arab dhow.  It consisted of wooden planks sewn together with rope. The construction technique indicated that the ship may have been built on the Arabian Peninsula, in a Gulf port, or perhaps on the coast of Oman, where similar vessels were still being built in the twentieth century. It had sailed all the way from the Middle East to China and was on its way home when it sank in the Java Sea.

What  was traded ?

Glass was brought from the Middle East, cotton from India, spices and wood from Southeast Asia, and ceramics and silk from China.

In the shipwreck, more than 60,000 glazed bowls, ewers, and other ceramic items were discovered – most from Changsha, as well as luxury objects made of gold and silver, bronze mirrors and ordinary objects belonging to the crew. Its contents were protected from erosion as they were packed in jars.

So let’s see some of these wares:

Green-Splashed Ware

The ewer below was made in China, probably in the Gongxian kilns, around the 830s. It is, perhaps, the grandest ceramic piece found in the Tang Shipwreck. The lozenge with flowers is a design developed in the Abbasid Empire. Chinese artists adopted the pattern, probably to export to Middle East customers. The overall form of the ewer is based on objects made in metal, as is evident from the upturned rim of the base, and the thinness of the handle.

Ewer – Stoneware, height 104 cm

Changsha Ware

The vast majority of the Tang ship’s ceramic wares came from the kilns of Changsha, in the central southern province of Hunan: 55,000 Changsha bowls and 2,500 other wares.

These wares seem to have been popular in markets overseas as well as in China itself. The motifs were painted in brown, green, using iron and copper oxide based pigments. One of the bowls had an inscription mentioning a summer’s day in 826. Drinking tea was very popular during the Tang dynasty and, instead of cups, these bowls were used to drink tea.

Changsha wares

Blue-and-White Plates

Three white dishes with a blue design were found in the shipwreck. These are among the earliest known Chinese blue-and-white ware. The cobalt used was most likely an import from Arabia-Persia and the motifs – one or two lozenges surrounded by foliage – were of Abbasid design.

left: made in China; right: made in Basra (Iraq)

Bronze Mirrors

Thirty-nine Chinese bronze mirrors, designed for trade, were found in the shipwreck. Many of them had blackened but were originally silvery. One side was polished smooth to provide a reflective surface, the other side was decorated with different motifs, such as flowers or auspicious animals.

An interesting piece among the mirrors was one that was almost a thousand years old by the time the ship sailed; it dates from the Han era (206 BCE – 220 CE). Another  antique piece dates from the Six Dynasties period (220–589 CE).

Bronze mirror

For Part 1 of the ACM visit write-up, please see ‘Worth Visiting Again and Again’ 

For Part 3, please see ‘Faith and Belief’


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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