Thu, Sep 24, 2009 - Page 13 News List

[ ARTS & CULTURE ] In a Singapore storeroom, treasure awaits

The hoard salvaged from a Tang Dynasty shipwreck is being stored in a museum basement and may one day become the core of a maritime Silk Road museum

By Kai Portmann  /  DPA , SINGAPORE


For about 1,200 years, the treasure was lying hidden between rocks and coral reefs in the shallow waters of the Gelasa Strait, a passage between the Indonesian islands of Belitung and Bangka.

Then, in 1998, fishermen diving for sea cucumbers stumbled across ceramic bowls embedded in a pile of sand and corals.

They dug a hole, and 17m beneath the ocean surface, and discovered a sunken vessel with more than 60,000 artifacts on board, mostly ceramics from Tang Dynasty China but also unique pieces dating back to the ninth century.

The discovery excited scholars, who viewed it as a proof of a maritime silk road, the watery counterpart of the overland Silk Road, which connected Asia to the Mediterranean.

Eleven years on, the treasure of the Belitung wreck remains hidden from the eyes of the general public.

Most artifacts are kept in a depot in the basement of Singapore’s Hua Song Museum, waiting to possibly become the core of a Maritime Silk Road museum yet to be built in the city-state.

“On board the ship were rare treasures,” said Alvin Chia, executive with the Sentosa Leisure Group, which develops tourist attractions on Singapore’s Sentosa island.

In 2005, the company purchased the ship’s cargo for more than US$32 million, out rivaling bidders like Qatar and Shanghai, after German treasure hunter Tilman Walterfang salvaged the artifacts from the bottom of the sea.

In the entrance hall of the storeroom, Chia explained the most impressive pieces, shown on wall charts.

“Let’s see the real stuff now,” he then said, drawing a

black curtain.

Arranged on 25m-wide steps leading up to the ceiling, rows of jars and bowls fill the vast storeroom, all once packed on board a 20m-long and about 5m-wide Arabic dhow that sank on its way from China to Oman, most scholars believe.

At first, it was the sheer scale of the ceramics, originating from different kilns from all over China, which struck the researchers.

“The quantity of pottery on the ship demonstrates that there was a highly organized production system in China ... a mass production system more highly organized than any known previously,” said John Miksic, an expert on Southeast Asian archeology at Singapore National University.

An inscription on one bowl reads, “the 16th day of the seventh month of the second year of the Baoli reign,” dating it to the year 826 in the latter period of the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907).

It was also the motifs on the pottery that captivated the scholars.

“The artists are kind of crazy,” Chia said, cautiously pulling out one bowl after the other from the racks. “They go around with a lot of patterns.”

Lotuses, dragons, Chinese calligraphy and Buddhist symbols are mixed with geometric decorations from the Muslim world and Islamic scripts praising Allah.

“The fusion of these two cultural worlds,” as Miksic put it, was also represented in the presumably most spectacular object — an octagonal cup, made of solid gold and featuring dancers from Central Asia.

With a weight of 684g and a height of 8.9cm, it is “the largest Tang Dynasty gold cup ever found,” Chia said.

A cargo with the value found aboard the Belitung shipwreck is rare, Miksic said.

“Perhaps a shipment of this quality left China once every decade or even longer,” the archeologist said. “We may never find another.”

Not surprisingly, the gold cup along with 10,000 pieces of silverware and blue and white Chinese porcelain, is not kept with the pottery.

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