by Jan-Erik Nilsson

Belitung Tang Cargo exhibition Singapore 2016

Belitung exhiition Singapore 2017

Around 830 A.D. during the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907) a dhow, an Arab merchant ship, foundered on a reef just off the coast of Belitung,
a small island in the Java Sea, during its return voyage from China. A selection of the excavated cargo is exhibited at the Asian Civilization Museum, Singapore.
Photo: Cheryl Marie Cordeiro and Jan-Erik Nilsson, 2016

The Belitung shipwreck, ca 830 CE

Around 830 A.D. during the Chinese Tang Dynasty an Arab merchant ship foundered on a reef just off the coast of Belitung, a small island in the Java Sea.

In 1998 fishermen diving for sea cucumbers discovered the wreck, lying in shallow waters less than three kilometers offshore.

Anyone that have ever visit Canton (Guangzhou) in the Pearl River delta, and noticed the Tang dynasty pagodas there that still bear witness of an active Muslim community and intense trade relation between the Abbasid Iraq and Tang China, must have wondered what the trade goods would have looked like.

And here rested the answer about the 9th century trade via the Maritime Silk Route.

Not only was the Belitung shipwreck the oldest Arab vessel discovered in Asian waters, but it also contained the largest group of Tang dynasty artifacts ever found. The recovery of both ship and cargo has allowed for a radical reappraisal of the nature of early Asian sea trade with far greater certainty than was possible before.

The date of the wreck have been established both from a bowl found in the cargo with a date equivalent to 826 AD. This date is supported by carbon 14 analysis of the hull.

The Cargo

Map of Belitung Cargo

Of the cargo approximately 60,000 glazed bowls, ewers, and other ceramics objects were recovered together with an extensive mix of all imaginable objects for daily use as well as precious treasures of gold, silver and bronze. There were lead ingots for ballast, bronze mirrors, spice-filled jars and intricately worked vessels of silver and gold as well as households objects and what must have been the private belongings of the crew.

When looking at this map over where the kilns are located it is difficult to imagine that tens of thousands of Changsha kilns ceramic objects such as bowls and ewers could have been transported to the coast in any other way than via the Yangzi River, to Yangzhou and the Hangzhou bay area.

Then again, competition might have driven the trade towards other commercial centers, such at the city of Canton in Guangzhou. The lack of any larger amounts of the very popular Yue stoneware points in that direction. There were definitely readily available transportation facilities that could have brought Changsha wares to Guangzhou.

We can assume from the variety of wares and items, that some were personal belongings, some where rare - maybe gifts, some were valuables and some - the majority - was taken in as cargo, due to the sheer number of its kinds.

The majority of the surviving cargo consisted of ceramics from the Changsha kiln, also called Tongguan, in Hunan. Most of this was bowls and ewers, but a small number of figurines and jarlets etc was also found. Many of the bowls were originally packed in straw cylinders and stowed directly in the hold.

Many of the large 'Dusun'-type storage jars was used to store smaller bowls that was stacked helically inside with up to 140 per jar.

In much lesser number were a selection of white Xing and Ding wares. At this time Xing and Ding wares are hard to tell apart and it is likely that the best ceramics at this time comes from the Xing kilns. The Ding kiln only rose to fame in the later Song dynasty due to government support while the Xing kiln reached its peak during the Mid Tang period, to decline from then on.

Some Yue-ware from Zhejiang Province was included but in no large quantities. Surprisingly enough this cargo also presented the earliest known intact underglaze blue-and-white dishes.

Further was found a number of intricately decorated gold dishes and a cup, augmented by gilt-silver covered boxes and a large ewer, all beautifully decorated with animals and vegetation, many following Islamic themes.

The discovery of such high value items in a shipwreck context is extremely unusual.

To explain the valuables among the cargo it has been speculated that the Belitung ship could have carried tribute gifts along with its main cargo. Another possibility is that the ship had taken on some very well off passenger that had brought his wealth along with him.

Among the perishable or less valuable items on board were found Indonesian scales weights, aromatic resin, gongs, an ink stone, a glass bottle, grindstones and lacquer-ware. Much of this suggests that the crew may well have, at least partially, been from Southeast Asian.

Bronze mirrors

Twenty-nine bronze mirrors were recovered from the wreck. Almost all of them were contemporary commercial mirrors of the Tang period except a small round one decorated with "The Four Directions" and was from the first century BC of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).

Originally, all bronze mirrors were functional objects of a silvery color. To create a reflective surface the casters added more tin to the bronze. In average Tang bronze mirrors were made of three quarters of copper (69%), one quarter of tin (25%) and some lead (6%).

One of the mirrors offered a surprise being one never-before-seen example of the famed mirrors cast on the Yangzi River in Yangzhou, a so-called Yangxin or Jiangxin mirror. They were of the highest fame and "was made from metal that was smelted a hundred times". These mirrors are celebrated in Tang literature as the finest and most exclusive specimens of their kind. Others said that the best was probably not smelted more than 40 to 60 times, and that this just made them brittle. The Belitung example was cracked in half when found.

White wares

The white wares of northern China launched the country's reputation as a center of hard white and translucent porcelain. Porcelain clays are naturally available in north China, and some rare unglazed examples of white clay, fired at temperatures high enough to qualify them as stoneware, have been discovered at sites of the late Shang dynasty (circa 1600-circa 1050 BCE) at Anyang in Henan province. Maybe as a byproduct of the bronze casting industry.

These early beginnings were isolated experiments and only after another 1,600 years or so a continuous production of stoneware began in Northern China.

On the Belitung wreck was found some 300 items of white wares, most of them tableware, and all made in northern China and appear to come from three or four different kilns, mainly in Hebei and Henan provinces.

Even though the north of China was linked to the international port of Yangzhou via the Grand Canal, this group might have been assembled through intermediaries rather than being ordered directly from the kilns.

The white wares of China were well known throughout Asia. and were probably the most valuable ceramics on board.

Geological difference

Geologically north and south China is very different. As a result, raw materials for stoneware and porcelain are different. Northern wares are rich in clay minerals, while those of the south are generally rock-based and rich in fine quartz and mica. For the first two millennia of China's historic period, the ceramic traditions developed quite independently from one other.

Around the sixth century China was divided into Northern and Southern kingdoms. The north was ruled by a non-Chinese dynasty. Many foreigners and new ideas reached China via the Silk Road, helping to bring about change and innovations. One of them was the sudden appearance of a fine white stoneware.

Since the late Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) somewhat heavily potted white stoneware were made in Hebei and Henan. It had a pure white body and a glossy, colorless glaze with a tendency to adhere in thick, glassy drops. But it was only after the An Lushan rebellion in 755, and the decline of funerary pomp that followed, that fine white wares definitely advanced from the tomb to the table.

Xing kilns

During the Tang dynasty the Xing kilns of the Hebei province south of Beijing, became famous for their thinly potted, snow-white ceramics. They reached the peak of their development around the late Tang period, when they supplied tributary wares to the court.

Some pieces even bear inscriptions that suggest a royal connection, such as the term ying ("surplus") referring to one of the imperial storehouses.

Green Yue wares

White Xing wares and green Yue wares developed side-by-side and were both ranked as the finest wares of the north and the south respectively. The green Yue were likened with jade and the white Xing were likened to silver in contemporary literature. Silver shapes were therefore particularly popular in white wares. In general however, there were many parallels in shapes between northern white and southern green wares.

The poet and tea connoisseur Lu Yu (730s-circa 804), author of the Chajing (The Classic of Tea), seems to have preferred Yue ware for his tea bowls, while other preferred the white bowls from the Xing kilns.

Yet Xing ware may have been even more popular for wine. Wine bottles from Neiqiu, one of the Xing kilns, are repeatedly mentioned as such in classical texts.

Ding Kilns

Somewhat further north of the Xing kilns were the Ding kilns who begun in the Tang dynasty by imitating Xing ware. During the Tang dynasty both kilns fired wood, which gave their glazes a similar bluish tinge. Later, the Ding kilns switched to coal why their glazes acquired an ivory tone, that today are considered a characteristic of the Ding wares.

By the Five Dynasties (907-60) Ding had become more important than the Xing kilns, and by the Song dynasty (960-1279) they had eclipsed Xing entirely.

Hebei white wares

The Xing kilns of present-day Neiqiu and Lincheng counties and the Ding kilns of Quyang are in fact only about 100 miles apart. Since the chemical composition of the three kiln groups are not very different, some specialists prefer to speak only of Hebei white wares in reference to the entire group.

Neither Xing nor Ding white wares seem to have been made in any great quantities during Tang.

The cargo

At the time the ship was loaded, the world's finest ceramic ware was white Xing ware and, since some of the white wares found on the Belitung wreck are of the highest quality extant from this period, it should thus be possible to attribute these wares with some confidence to the Xing kilns. Some can be matched with fragments excavated from the Xing kiln sites, but these are unfortunately rare.

The body looks rather chalky and matte but produces a clear sound when struck. The vessels are thinly potted and show a diligent use of the knife for subsequent trimming. Shapes are delicate and precise. The surface is evenly covered with the thinnest layer of clear glaze that degrades easily. There are no traces of any decorations.

There are large handleless cups and cupstands to match, and conical, and rounded bowls, showing a characteristic bi-disc foot, that remained typical for all cone shaped bowls throughout the entire Tang period


One interesting observation is that the lobes on these wares are not created by indentations but by an carefully applied and molded slip, while the undersides remain plain.

Pieces that have lost their glaze are hard to attribute. Some handled cups and ewers are of this kind. The two ewers on board of this type are of a shape typically employed for pouring hot water onto powdered tea, was made by several kilns at that time. They vary both in overall proportion and in the way their handles are formed and attached, and how their foot or base is shaped.


Their popularity and unique quality inspired copies. The most important difference was the pure white body. Instead, a white slip hides a coarser and somewhat darker body, that is not without impurities.

Gongxian kilns in Henan

The potters of the Gongxian kilns in Henan had begun to make white stoneware already in the Northern Wei period (386-534). By early Tang they had become one of China's foremost suppliers of colorful funerary pottery.

When funerary pottery was no longer in demand, they turned to making stoneware for daily life instead using less pure material covered with a white slip. The switch from specialization in low-fired burial ceramics to high-fired utilitarian wares may have occurred in the latter part of the eighth century.

Gongxian wares resemble Xing, but show a difference in material and craftsmanship. Xing wares are a predecessor to white porcelain. Gongxian wares are slip-covered stoneware, heavily potted, and less carefully finished than their Xing counterparts.

Gongxian wares found at the wreck are well made, although the potting is somewhat clumsy and shapes can be warped. The body material is coarse-grained, grayish to pale buff or pale beige in color, and generally contains impurities in the form of tiny dark specks, which makes the application of a slip indispensable.

The slip is applied in thick layers, often more than once.

The glaze is transparent but less clear and glassy than on Xing wares. It has a faint yellow tinge and tends to be strongly crazed. The Henan wares were fired at lower temperatures and can in combination with the slip, take on a beautiful, creamy ivory tone.

Gongxian white wares were apparently even used at the Tang court, as a large quantity of shards was reputedly found at the imperial palace site Daminggong at Xi'an.

The wreck contained plain white bowls, bottles, and covered jars from Gongxian. The large bowls were probably intended for food, while the bottles may have been used together with Xing ware cups and cup stands for serving wine, and the jars, with or without a spout, for storing it.

The bottles have the same shape as some Yue bottles on the wreck, with unusual side lugs for fastening a stopper or for carrying - a shape otherwise rarely seen.

Although the appearance can be deceptive, and it may well have been possible to pass off secondary Xing white wares as first-rate Gongxian wares, it is noteworthy that only the Gongxian kilns thought fit to embellish their monochrome wares with color such as green splashes or bright blue designs.

All shapes were shared by most Tang workshops, and when there are no designs to help with attribution, most white shards recovered from archaeological digs outside China remain unidentified, beyond being recognized as Chinese.

Small group of slip-covered white stoneware

A very small group of slip-covered white stoneware might suggest an attempt to technical development by being superior in material but inferior in workmanship. These few pieces have a relatively fine-grained, smooth body that was probably originally light buff or off-white in color but now is strongly discolored by iron.

The white slip was, however, carelessly applied and stops well above the base on the outside.

The general appearance is quite rough, the potting thick, and profiles are not very distinct.

These pieces might have been made by a different Henan kiln center, such as the Hebiji kilns at Hebi, or in a different province. They include a bowl with a bi-disc foot and a small cup with a flared rim.

Despite many recent publications on the subject, China's early white wares remains much less well researched than their green counterparts.

The material available fits a possible dating to the second quarter of the ninth century but does not in itself yield much information that would help to pin down more precisely the date or route of the ship's voyage.

Summary from: White Wares of Northern China, Regina Krahl

Green wares

The green wares of southern China are the world's oldest ceramics that are hard, dense and durable. They preceded any comparable products in the West by almost 3,000 years. To make these wares volcanic rocks and ashes was easily available in the nature and could often be used more or less as found.

The potters' problem in South of China was therefore not the material but to develop a kiln that could get hot enough to fire the wares they could make. The technology for this was developed together with bronze casting, around 1500 BC.

The earliest glazes on these stoneware developed naturally due to wood ash falling onto the hot vessel during firing, where it melted into a glaze. This was developed into a proper glaze by mixing wood ash with liquid clay slip and applying this onto the vessels ahead of firing. Due to the iron content in these mixtures, the glazes turned olive green in the kiln.

Two groups of green ware, from Zhejiang and Guangdong

In the ceramic cargo of the Belitung wreck was some 900 pieces of green-glazed stoneware from southern China. Some was a large group of massive storage containers that served as packing cases for more valuable goods. The other part was two groups of fine tableware that seemed to be there to be used. These fine green tablewares come from two different coastal regions in the southeast of China. One from areas in Zhejiang, south of Shanghai, and one from Guangdong, east of Guangzhou (Canton).

Yueyao (Yue ware)

Some of the earliest green-glazed stoneware in China were made in the Yue region of the Zhejiang province south of Hangzhou Bay. Here kilns have been operating since the Shang dynasty, ca 1600-1050 BCE.

Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)

During the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), the wares began to display a recognizable style.

Six Dynasties period (220-589)

During the Six Dynasties period (220-589) the kilns' production was boasted in quality and quantity when all six southern dynasties chose the nearby Nanjing as their capital. Most of this excellent ware that has come down to us from this period, was used mainly for burial purposes.

Great leap forward in the North of China

Around the sixth century, in the North of China now run by foreigners, the development of ceramics took a great leap forward. Stoneware comparable in quality to those from the south but now in three different colors - olive green, black, and white - began to be made in northern China.