MARITIME EXPLORATIONS
Belitung Wreck Details & Photos

 

The Belitung Wreck was found by sea-cucumber divers one nautical mile off the coast of the Island of Belitung, Indonesia. It was only 17 m deep. A series of coral reefs a little further offshore appear to have been the cause of the loss.

A remarkably large section of the ship's hull survived. The hull planks were stitched together, and light frames were lashed to the hull. A keelson, stringers, ceiling planks, and thwart beams, all remained in place. Many timber samples were analysed. Without doubt, the ship is of Middle-Eastern construction. The Belitung Wreck is the first and only Arab ship to be found in Asia, and the first and only in the world with a complete cargo.

A bowl from the wreck is inscribed with a date equivalent to 826 AD. Carbon 14 analysis confirms the early 9th century provenance.

The majority of the surviving cargo consisted of ceramics from the Changsha kilns of China, primarily bowls and ewers, but also a smattering of figurines, jarlets, and other oddities. Many of the bowls were originally packed in straw cylinders and stowed directly in the hold. Many others were helically stacked inside large 'Dusun'-type storage jars, with up to 140 per jar.

Perhaps overshadowing the Changsha ware is a selection of imperial quality ceramics; white-ware from the famous Ding kilns, Yue-ware from Zhejiang Province, and the earliest known intact underglaze blue-and-white dishes.

Even these imperial ceramics are overshadowed by intricately decorated gold dishes and a cup, augmented by gilt-silver covered boxes and a large ewer, all beautifully decorated with animals and vegetation, many following Islamic themes.

The discovery of such high value items in a shipwreck context is extremely unusual. Ships normally carried trade goods. These could certainly be of great quality, but not of imperial standard. It would seem the Belitung ship carried a tribute gift along with its main cargo. These prized items may well have been destined for a Middle-Eastern caliph or, less likely, Javanese royalty.

Much can also be learnt from the less valuable items on board, such as Indonesian scales weights, aromatic resin, gongs, an inkstone, a glass bottle, grindstones, and lacquer-ware. None of these items is definitively Middle-Eastern. The Belitung ship may well have been at least partially crewed by Southeast Asians. She may well have called in at a Srivijayan port.

The Belitung Wreck is the first archaeological evidence to suggest that Arabs traded directly with China during the first millennium. If so, they followed the longest sea route of that era, not to be surpassed until the Portuguese ventured into Asia in the late 15th century.

 

Changsha ceramic cat.

Changsha cup with straw.

Ding whiteware cup.

     

Pierced ceramic censor.

Basin.

Changsha ewer.

     

Gilt silver covered box.

Die.

Chinese lion and grape pattern mirror.