Tang Ceramics at the Bottom of the Ocean

In 1998 two sea cucumber divers came upon a thousand year old shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Belitung Island, Indonesia. It turned out to be a remarkable find.

In his new book, The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route, that coincides with an exhibit of the same name at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Simon Worrall tells us that the cargo included “1,400 storage jars of various sizes, 1,600 ewers, and 800 ink pots. The serial nature of the cargo and the geographic diversity of its production (from five different kilns all over China) strongly suggest that these were export items made to order. The presence of 55,000 Changsha bowls, named after the kilns in Hunan Province where they were produced, tore up the history books, setting back by almost 800 years the date for the beginning of what we today call mass production.”


The ceramics in the top layer were encrusted with barnacles, coral and oyster shells, but the silt covering the lower layers preserved the rest of the pots so they are as pristine as if they had been made yesterday. Smaller wares, such the Changsha bowls were packed inside large jars, thus offering even more protection.

There were ewers, bowls, and jars splashed with the bright green of copper oxide that Tang potters so loved. One spectacular ewer, pictured on the cover, was stolen by fishermen during the salvage operation – thefts were apparently an ongoing threat during the excavation – and buried in sand. Fortunately, it was recovered intact. There are also delicate celadons and pearly white Yue ware and a few early cobalt blue and white pieces. One particularly delightful piece is a grater shaped like a fish complete with a hole in the tail for hanging. Something to try making perhaps? Interestingly, decorations on the pots vary, seemingly with the intent to satisfy the tastes of different markets.

Archaeologists have determined that the ship was of Arabic origin, from the Abbasid Empire (820 CE), while most of the cargo was from the Tang Empire thus pushing the timeline back for such global trade between two great powers. There were also remarkable pieces of gold and silver, mirrors and spices.

More than 70,000 artifacts were recovered with only 300 on exhibit at the Aga Khan. Still, it seems worth a trip to Toronto if one can manage it. If not, the book is a little treasure with excellent photos and a map and crisp, informative text.