How a shipwreck helped the discovery of an ancient trade route to China
The Jewel of Muscat is a reconstruction of a ship that was wrecked near the island of Belitung off the coast of Indonesia nearly 1200 years ago. When the cargo and the remains of the ship were studied the story of an ancient trade route became clearer.
For the first time, strong archaeological evidence from the shipwreck supported the historical records that suggested there was direct trade between Arabia and China during the 9th century.
To reach this conclusion four questions about the shipwreck had to be answered:
- Where was the ship made?
- Where did the cargo come from?
- Where was the ship going?
- How old was the ship?
In this video, the Construction Director Tom Vosmer explains the importance of the shipwreck to the project. Information gained from the shipwreck about the hull, construction methods and materials will be used to reconstruct the 9th-century trading vessel, the Jewel of Muscat. When launched the ship will be sailed to Singapore to be part of a museum.
Where was the ship made?
The construction method, materials and hull shape suggested an Arab or Indian ship. The cross-stitched seams with no wooden or iron fastenings and the large beams stitched to the hull supported this. Trying to find out which of these countries was the most likely home of the original ship came down to an analysis of the timber.
The first test of timber samples in 2000 suggested that India could be the place of construction but the results were not conclusive. The samples, which had been buried in the seabed for hundreds of years, were in poor condition and difficult to analyse. The experts decided to try again and perhaps a second set of tests would give more positive results.
In 2007, a second analysis was carried out. The new tests were more successful and showed that most of the timber was probably from Africa not India. These results suggested the Belitung ship was most likely constructed in the Middle East, perhaps in Oman or Yemen. In these regions African timber was commonly used for shipbuilding. If the ship had been built in India, local timber would have been used.
Where did the cargo come from?
The cargo consisted mainly of Chinese ceramics from the kilns of Changsha in Hunan Province, with some pieces from other regions in China. Careful study of all the ceramics recovered from the wreck suggest they were loaded in the port of Guangzhou (Canton) during the Tang dynasty.
Other cargo included copper alloy bowls, small dice, gilt silverware, Chinese mirrors and Chinese coins. The overwhelming quantity of Chinese goods suggests the ship was on its return voyage and was involved in direct trade with China.
Where was the ship going?
A study of the cargo, the remains of the ship and historical records suggest three options. The ship was:
- Sailing from Arabia to the western side of the Isthmus of Kra (Malaysia). There Chinese goods (which had arrived by sea or had been brought overland from the South China Sea on the other side of the Isthmus) would have been loaded for the return voyage to the Indian Ocean.
- Sailing from Arabia to an entrepot such as Palembang in Indonesia to pick up the cargo before re-crossing the Indian Ocean to home ports.
- Trading directly with China and returning to Indian Ocean ports.
The large quantities of Chinese goods suggest the ship was on the return voyage and was involved in direct trade with China from the western Indian Ocean.
Did You Know?
Entrepot is the French word for warehouse. Entrepots were trading posts where merchandise could be imported and exported. They were set up because ships were sometimes reluctant to sail the entire length of a trading route and would sell to an entrepot instead. The entrepot then sold at a higher price to ships travelling the other part of the trade route.
How old was the ship?
The excellent condition of the ceramics recovered from the wreck site was a critical factor in dating the wreck. A Changsha bowl inscribed with the Chinese equivalent of AD 826 was the key discovery. Chinese coins with dates from the beginning of the Tang Dynasty supported this.
Radio carbon dating of aromatic resin and the Chinese spice star anise was also consistent with these dates.
So it appears the Belitung ship was sailing in the mid 9th century and the most likely route was from the Middle East to China and return.
A 9th-century sea trading route to China
When all the evidence from historical records and archaeological discoveries from the shipwreck site and on land is considered, a possible route for the Belitung ship can be mapped out.
From Muscat the ship had a choice of crossing the Indian Ocean directly to Sri Lanka or taking the coastal route to Sri Lanka along the west coast of India. From Sri Lanka, the ship could have travelled east to the Nicobar Islands, through the Straits of Malacca and across the South China Sea to a Chinese port.