National Geographic : 2009 Jun
• The world economy in the ninth century had two powerful engines. One was Tang dynasty China, an empire stretching from the South China Sea to the borders of Persia, with ports open to foreign traders from far and wide. e Tang welcomed diverse people to its capital, Changan, the site of modern-day Xian, and multiethnic groups lived side by side in a city of a million---a population unmatched by a Western city until London in the early 19th century. en, as today, China was an economic powerhouse---and much of that power was built on trade. The other economic engine was Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid dynasty from 762 onward. That dynasty inherited the Muslim world in the Middle East; by 750 it had spread as far as the Indus River to the east and Spain to the west, bringing with it trade, commerce, and the reli- gion of Islam (the Prophet Muhammad himself had been a merchant). Linking the two economic powerhouses were the Silk Road and its watery counterpart, the Maritime Silk Route. e overland road gets all the attention, but ships had likely been plying the seas between China and the Persian Gulf since the time of Christ. In tune with the cycle of the monsoon winds, this network of sea-lanes and harbors bound East and West in a continuous exchange of goods and ideas. Tang China was hungry for fine textiles, pearls, coral, and aromatic woods from Persia, East Africa, and India. In return, China traded paper, ink, and above all, silk. Silk, light and easily rolled up, could travel overland. But by the ninth century, ceramics from China had grown popular as well, and camels were not well suited for transporting crockery (think of those humps). So increasing quantities of the dishes and plates that held the meals of wealthy Persian Gulf merchants arrived by sea in Arab, Persian, and Indian ships. It was a long and perilous journey. And some- times a ship just vanished, like a plane off a radar screen. Since time immemorial, ships have come to grief in the Gelasa Strait, a funnel-shaped pas- sage between the small Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung, where turquoise waters conceal a maze of submerged rocks and reefs. Despite the dangers, sea cucumber divers were working the area a decade ago when, 51 feet down, they came across a coral block with ceramics embedded in it. ey pulled several intact bowls from inside a large jar, took them ashore, and sold them. e divers had stumbled upon the most impor- tant marine archaeological discovery ever made in Southeast Asia: a ninth-century Arab dhow lled with more than 60,000 handmade pieces of Tang dynasty gold, silver, and ceramics. e ship and its cargo, now referred to as the Belitung wreck, were like a time capsule of proof that Tang China, like China today, mass-produced trade goods and exported them by sea. Work- ing in shi s until the monsoon stopped them, a team of divers retrieved the ancient artifacts. e treasure---much of it, anyway---turned out to be the Tang equivalent of Fiestaware: so-called Changsha bowls, named after the Changsha kilns in Hunan where they were produced. Tall stoneware jars served as ninth-century shipping containers; each could hold more than a hun- dred nested bowls that might originally have been padded with rice straw, a sort of organic bubble wrap. Scholars already knew that such simple, functional tea bowls had been exported worldwide from the eighth to the tenth centu- ries: Shards of them had been found at sites as far a eld as Indonesia and Persia. But few of the bowls had ever been found intact. Now the Java Sea had yielded up a shipload, many perfectly preserved---protected in the BY SIMON WORRALL • PHOTOGRAPHS BY TONY LAW Simon Worrall has contributed to both National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler. is is Tony Law s rst assignment for this magazine.