A new exhibit opens today at the Asia Society Museum in New York City, ‘Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia.‘ The exhibit features a selection of 78 artifacts including ceramics, gold and silver items and bronze mirrors, from the 9th century Belitung shipwreck. On view for the first time in the United States, these objects are evidence of an active trade between between far-flung kingdoms in Asia over a millennium ago.
In 1998, Indonesian fishermen diving for sea cucumbers discovered a shipwreck off Indonesia’s Belitung Island in the Java Sea. The ship was an Arabian dhow with a rich cargo of Tang dynasty ceramics, and objects of gold and silver. The ship is believed to have been on its return voyage from China, bound for what is now Iran or Iraq, when it sank around 830 CE.
The exhibit at the Asia Society runs from March 7 through June 4, 2017. In the video below, Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski discusses Secrets of the Sea with Museum Director and Vice President for Arts & Cultural Programs Boon Hui Tan:
From the Asia Society website: The objects in this exhibition attest to the exchange of goods and ideas more than one thousand years ago when Asia was dominated by two great powers: China under the Tang dynasty and the Abbasid Caliphate in West Asia. Specifically, the cargo includes some objects of great value and beauty, and demonstrates the strong commercial links between these two powers, as well as the ingenuity of artists and merchants of the period. Moreover, the sheer scale of the cargo shows that in the ninth century Chinese ceramics were greatly popular in foreign lands and that Chinese potters mass-produced thousands of nearly identical ceramics for foreign markets. Ceramics found in the wreck range from humble Changsha wares to those that reflect elite taste such as celadon ware from Yue kilns and white ware from Xing kilns that were valued for their beauty and elegance.
In the past the common historical narrative described major global maritime networks connecting Asia to the rest of the world first emerging in the fifteenth century as western explorers and adventurers asserted a role in the region. With the discovery of the shipwreck near Belitung we now know that important, complex, and dynamic networks of maritime trade already connected disparate cultures across the globe as early as the ninth century.
Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia is co-organized by Asia Society and the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore. Objects are from the Khoo Teck Puat Gallery, Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore. The Tang Shipwreck Collection was made possible by the generous donation of the Estate of Khoo Teck Puat in honor of the Late Khoo Teck Puat.
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Thanks to Roberta Weisbrod for contributing to this post.