Monumental ewer with incised floral lozenges and clouds

Long-necked ewer. China, probably Henan Province. Gongxian kilns. Tang dynasty, ca. 825–50. Glazed stoneware with copper-green splashes over white slip. H. 40 1/2 x W. 9 x D. 10 1/4 in. (102 x 23 x 26 cm). Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2005.1.00900 1/2 to 2/2. Photography by Asian Civilisations Museum, Tang Shipwreck Collection

NEW YORK, NY.- Asia Society Museum in New York presents a selection of 76 artifacts from a thousand-year-old shipwreck discovered in 1998 in Southeast Asian waters. On view for the first time in the United States, the objects are evidence of the robust exchange of goods, ideas, and culture between far-flung kingdoms in Asia during the ninth century. Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia is on view from March 7 through June 4, 2017. 

"The contents of the Belitung shipwreck testify to the scale and sophistication of contact between ancient Islamic and Buddhist peoples more than a thousand years ago. Secrets of the Sea presents some of the most important archeological revelations of the twentieth century,” said Boon Hui Tan, Asia Society Vice President for Global Arts & Cultural Programs and Director of Asia Society Museum. “By shining a light on the rich cultural and commercial links among Asia’s disparate ancient empires hundreds of years before the arrival of the Europeans to the region, this exhibition challenges widely held Eurocentric conceptions of globalization, migration, and trade in the region. It is proof that globalization is a very old concept in Asia.” 

 

Four-lobed bowl with dragon medallion

Four-lobed bowl with dragon medallion. China, probably Henan Province, Gongxian kilns. Tang dynasty, ca. 825–850. Stoneware with pale copper-green glaze over white slip. H. 5 x D. 14.5 in. (12.7 x 36.8 cm). Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2005.1.00396. Photography by Asian Civilisations Museum, Courtesy of John Tsantes and Robert Harrell

Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia features precious cargo—bound for the Abbasid Caliphate, an empire that included present-day Iran and Iraq, and produced in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907)—including ceramics, gold and silver vessels, bronze mirrors, and other artifacts. Discovered in 1998 off of Belitung Island, Indonesia, the ship’s contents were miraculously protected from erosion and breakage by tight and ingenious packing as well as the conditions of the silty floor of the Java Sea. Until the discovery of this ship, it was believed that the Tang traded primarily through Central Asian land routes, mainly on the Silk Road. The discovery of the ship’s cargo confirmed the significant maritime trade route. Most of the works in the exhibition have never traveled outside Asia. 

Highlights in the exhibition include a magnificent ewer and other glazed stoneware objects with copper green splashes over white slip, which were highly desirable in the Middle East, also known as West Asia, from the largest cache of this type of ware recorded to date. A Chinese blue-and-white stoneware dish, with a lozenge motif that was common in West Asia, is one of three from the shipwreck. Created around 830, they are some of the earliest known complete examples of Chinese blue-and-white ceramics. The cobalt-blue pigments used, imported from the Abbasid Caliphate, had previously been found only in that part of the world and had not yet appeared in China. The exhibition also boasts rare and imperial-quality silver boxes and gold vessels, which are thought to have been used in trade negotiations and as diplomatic gifts. 

Blue and white dish with floral lozenge decoration, China, Henan Province, Gongxian kilns, Tang dynasty, ca

Dish with floral lozenge decoration. China, Henan Province, Gongxian kilns. Tang dynasty, ca. 825–50. Glazed stoneware with cobalt-blue pigment over white slip. Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2005.1.00473. Photography by Asian Civilisations Museum, Courtesy of John Tsantes and Robert Harrell

"The artifacts exhibited will expose American audiences to the rich narratives of the two great trading powers of the ninth century—Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate—and highlight ancient Asia’s early advances into industrial production for the export market,” noted Kennie Ting, Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. 

The exhibition begins with an exploration of the shipwreck’s 1998 discovery—by fishermen in shallow waters—that includes color photography of the wreck and documentary video footage. The show goes on to consider the rise of early global trade in Chinese goods, particularly blue-and-white ceramics, and advances in mass production, as well as the appetite in Southeast Asia and West Asia for luxury exports from China.

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Changsha ewers trapped in a coral concretion on the top of the wreck mound. Photography by Michael Flecker

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Stacks of Changsha bowls deep within the wreck mound. Photography by Michael Flecker, 1999.

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Changsha bowls from the wreck tightly packed inside a storage jar. Photography by Michael Flecker, 1999

Changsha bowl with decorative inscription in cursive script, China, Hunan Province, Changsha kilns, Tang dynasty, ca

Bowl with decorative inscription in cursive script. China, Hunan Province. Changsha kilns. Tang dynasty, ca. 825–50. Glazed stoneware with underglaze iron-brown. H. 2 x W. 6 in. (5.1 x 15.2 cm). Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2005.1.00580. Photography by Asian Civilisations Museum, Courtesy of John Tsantes and Robert Harrell.

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A round, silver box containing a set of small, lobed, silver-gilt boxes recovered from the wreck. Photography by Michael Flecker, 1999

Square lobed gold dish with cased insects, flowers, knotted ribbons and swastika (wan, ‘10,000’), China, Tang dynasty, ca

Square-lobed dish with insects, flowers, knotted ribbons, and swastika (wan, “10,000”). China, Tang dynasty, ca. 825–50. Gold. H. 1 1/4 x W. 6 x D. 4 in. (3.5 x 15.5 x 10 cm). Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2005.1.00922. Photography by Asian Civilisations Museum, Tang Shipwreck Collection

Four-lobed oval box with deer and lion

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Four-lobed oval box with deer and lion decoration. China, Tang dynasty, ca. 825–50. Silver, parcel-gilt. H. 1 x W. 3 1/2 x D. 2 1/2 in. (2.5 x 8.9 x 6.4 cm). Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2005.1.00865 1/2 to 2/2. Photography by Asian Civilisations Museum, Tang Shipwreck Collection.

Fan-shaped box with parrot and duck decoration

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Fan-shaped box with parrot and duck decoration. China, Tang dynasty, ca. 825–50. Silver, parcel-gilt. H. 1 x W. 3 1/2 x D. 2 1/2 in. (2.5 x 8.9 x 6.4 cm). Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2005.1.00868 1/2 to 2/2. Photography by Asian Civilisations Museum, Tang Shipwreck Collection.

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The ship was carrying a small amount of cash in the form of Chinese bronze coins (seen here) and large silver ingots. The presence of the coins on the ship suggests some of the earliest evidence of their acceptability in Southeast Asian markets. Photography by Michael Flecker, 1999

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The Jewel of Muscat, a ship constructed based on the Belitung wreck and evidence of early West Asian shipbuilding, during sea trials off Oman. Photography by Michael Flecker.

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Forefoot of Jewel of Muscat showing sewn planks. Photography by Alessandro Ghidoni, 2009

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Sewing the stem to the forward end of the keel on Jewel of Muscat. Photography by Alessandro Ghidoni, 2008

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Fitting Jewel of Muscat frames inside the shell of the hull. Photography by Alessandro Ghidoni, 2009

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Jewel of Muscat just before launching in the Gulf of Oman. Photography by Alessandro Ghidoni, 2009