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.

Kids and Pots at Mystic Aquarium

I went to the Mystic Aquarium with my granddaughter’s first grade class. Grandmothers get to be chaperones these days, which is nice. It’s a kid friendly place, with stingrays, jellyfish, sharks, eels, beluga whales, penguins, seals and sea lions. There’s even an aviary where the birds come and sit on your shoulder! It’s not a children’s museum, but the exhibits are very kid friendly and many offer the opportunity to touch. My charges loved petting the stingrays.

I, however, was most enchanted with the large room devoted to shipwrecks on the ocean floor because this was essentially a pottery display.  For centuries large pots were used as cargo containers. Indeed it was large jars that enabled merchants to develop a bustling trade in olive oil, wine, and other goods throughout the ancient Mediterranean Sea. And it is these shipping containers that have lasted, often perfectly intact, long after the timbers of the ship hulls have rotted away. They give archaeologists a wealth of information about the ancient world.

I had to smile when Arielle explained to her friend Stephanie — with great authority — how to use a potter’s wheel. The kick wheel in the exhibit is not quite the same as Roman or Egyptian potters would have had in their workshops but it gets the point across.

Hmmm. So what about some good books on pottery for first graders? This year, Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill with illustrations by Bryan Collier was a Caldecott Honor book. It is a paean to the wonder of throwing. In one spread, three pages open out with four consecutive paintings in which you see Dave’s hands. You are looking down with him, down into the clay. Written on the last painting are the words, “Dave’s hands, buried in the mounded mud, pulled out the shape of a jar.” At the end of the story, Hill and Collier give us notes, a life of Dave, the poems he inscribed on his jars, and a photo of a few of his pots, so an adult can go into more depth than the story itself offers, or a good reader can learn more on her own. Dave the Potter brings you as close to the magic of watching someone throw as a book can.

A Cup for Everyone by Yusuke Yonezu is about design and creativity. The characters are penguins. The penguin dad is a potter who makes cups from special clay. His cups are very beautiful but he must travel father and farther from home to sell them. Pucca, the penguin son, begins to fool around with the clay himself. He rather model figures than make cups but this turns out to be a good thing. He makes a parrot shaped cup for Mrs. Parrot who is thrilled. Then everyone wants a special cup and Pucca and his dad have lots of orders for personalized cups. This would be a good little story to read to an art class as the students make things from clay themselves.

I was pleased to see the exhibit of pottery at the Mystic Aquarium. I have only one suggestion. Put some clay out for the kids to touch, and they will think it is as much fun as petting the stingrays.