email a friend iconprinter friendly iconTang Shipwreck
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Linking the two economic powerhouses were the Silk Road and its watery counterpart, the Maritime Silk Route. The overland road gets all the attention, but ships had likely been plying the seas between China and the Persian Gulf since the time of Christ. In tune with the cycle of the monsoon winds, this network of sea-lanes and harbors bound East and West in a continuous exchange of goods and ideas.

Tang China was hungry for fine textiles, pearls, coral, and aromatic woods from Persia, East Africa, and India. In return, China traded paper, ink, and above all, silk. Silk, light and easily rolled up, could travel overland. But by the ninth century, ceramics from China had grown popular as well, and camels were not well suited for transporting crockery (think of those humps). So increasing quantities of the dishes and plates that held the meals of wealthy Persian Gulf merchants arrived by sea in Arab, Persian, and Indian ships.

It was a long and perilous journey. And some­times a ship just vanished, like a plane off a radar screen.

Since time immemorial, ships have come to grief in the Gelasa Strait, a funnel-shaped passage between the small Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung, where turquoise waters conceal a maze of submerged rocks and reefs. Despite the dangers, sea cucumber divers were working the area a decade ago when, 51 feet down, they came across a coral block with ceramics embedded in it. They pulled several intact bowls from inside a large jar, took them ashore, and sold them.

The divers had stumbled upon the most impor­tant marine archaeological discovery ever made in Southeast Asia: a ninth-century Arab dhow filled with more than 60,000 handmade pieces of Tang dynasty gold, silver, and ceramics. The ship and its cargo, now referred to as the Belitung wreck, were like a time capsule of proof that Tang China, like China today, mass-produced trade goods and exported them by sea. Working in shifts until the monsoon stopped them, a team of divers retrieved the ancient artifacts.

The treasure—much of it, anyway—turned out to be the Tang equivalent of Fiestaware: so-called Changsha bowls, named after the Changsha kilns in Hunan where they were produced. Tall stoneware jars served as ninth-century shipping containers; each could hold more than a hundred nested bowls that might originally have been padded with rice straw, a sort of organic bubble wrap. Scholars already knew that such simple, functional tea bowls had been exported worldwide from the eighth to the tenth centuries: Shards of them had been found at sites as far afield as Indonesia and Persia. But few of the bowls had ever been found intact.

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