Now the Java Sea had yielded up a shipload, many perfectly preserved—protected in the stoneware jars from the scouring action of sand on the seafloor. Sponged clean, their glazes shone as brightly as the day they were fired.
The handmade bowls give evidence of "factory-like production," says John Miksic, an American professor at Singapore's National University who is an expert on Southeast Asian archaeology. They are the earliest known exported examples of their kind. "The cargo also implies an organizer with managerial skill," Miksic says, "and huge quantities of imported raw materials." Cobalt for blue-and-white ceramics, for example, came from Iran; it was not recovered from ore in China until much later.
Although Arab mariners clearly plied the Maritime Silk Route, trading on a large scale over great distances, "this is the first Arab dhow discovered in Southeast Asian waters," says John Guy, senior curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, "and the richest and largest consignment of early ninth-century southern Chinese gold and ceramics ever discovered in a single hoard."
A reconstruction suggests the craft was similar to a kind of sailing vessel still found in Oman and known as a baitl qarib. Almost 60 feet long, with a raked prow and stern, it was built of African and Indian wood and fitted with a square sail. Its most distinctive feature was that instead of being held together with dowels or nails, its planks and beams were literally sewn together, probably with coir, a coconut-husk fiber.
The dhow's port of departure and destination are still uncertain. No logbooks survived, no bills of lading, no maps. But most scholars believe that it was bound for the Middle East, possibly the Iraqi port city of Al Basrah (now Basra). It probably set sail from Guangzhou, the largest of the ports linked by the Maritime Silk Route. In the ninth century an estimated 10,000 foreign traders and merchants, many of them Arabs and Persians, lived in Guangzhou.
Among the tens of thousands of Changsha bowls found in the wreck, one was inscribed with this message: "the 16th day of the seventh month of the second year of the Baoli reign," or A.D. 826 on the Western calendar. This is almost certainly when the bowl was fired. Then, as now, goods did not sit around on the wharf for long, so the ship probably embarked not long afterward.