Monday, December 1, 2014

Belitung Shipwreck

Belitung Shipwreck
Belitung/Tang/Batu Hitam Shipwreck

The Belitung shipwreck is also known as the Tang shipwreck or Batu Hitam shipwreck which was found by the local fishermen off the Belitung Island, in Indonesia in the year 1998. The Arabian ship probably sailed between Oman and China during the 9th century AD where evidence indicate that it could have travelled on the so called Maritime Silk Route when it transported ceramic and the vessel sank on its return journey.

With regards to this evidence, an interesting thing related to the Belitung shipwreck is its location and it is unknown why the vessel had navigated away from its route through the South China Sea and passed through southern Vietnam, the Singapore Strait into the Straits of Malacca between Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra while Belitung is in the south-east of the Singapore Strait than from this expected route.

Belitung wreck of this age is rare discoveries and the ship was the only 9th century vessel of that origin found till date. The Belitung wreckage has provided two important archaeological findings, like its cargo and its hull and the major part of the recovered cargo of around 60,000 pieces comprising of ceramics most of which are Changsha wares. The cargo also had the largest single collection of Tang Dynasty artefacts which were found in a single location due to which it is called the `Tang Treasure’.

Belitung Shipwreck 1
The First Arab Dhow

The Belitung wreck is also the first Arab dhow which has been discovered in the Southeast Asian waters. The dhow is considered to be a traditional sailing vessel which has one or more masts with lateen sails that were used in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea region and it is disputed if this type of vessel were invented by the Arabic or Indian people.

Belitung Shipwreck 3
The Arabian dhow has also given new insight in the trade routes between the Middle East and China during that period and the treasure discovered has been kept as one collection. At the time of the excavation, the efforts to maintain the integrity of the site as well as its cargo has given rise to detailed archaeological evidence which has now given more understanding in the construction methods that were used in the shipbuilding. The items and style of artefacts also reveal earlier unknown facts about the trade between the two locations.

Belitung Shipwreck 2
Discoveries Vulnerable and Prone to Loot/Damage

The discoveries of Belitung shipwreck was vulnerable and prone to loot and damage and local nor national authorities had the essential resources to explore or protect the site and without any exploration it would have been difficult to assess its importance.

 Moreover, without any action, unique historical data could have been lost. It was the Indonesian government who decided to authorize a commercial enterprise – Seabed Exploration to study the Belitung shipwreck, putting up a series of events which finally led to the sale of the cargo to a nonprofit organization in Singapore and eventually, the exhibition of the shipwreck.

The process of disposition and exploration of the cargo discovered involved complicated actions of government, archaeologist, private business, nonprofit organization as well as with those interested.

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