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’.
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.
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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