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The Belitung Excavation

Twelve centuries ago, a merchant ship—an Arab dhow—foundered on a reef just off the coast of Belitung, a small island in the Java Sea. The cargo was a remarkable assemblage of lead ingots, bronze mirrors, spice-filled jars, intricately worked vessels of silver and gold, and approximately 60,000 glazed bowls, ewers, and other ceramics. The ship remained buried at sea for more than a millennium, its contents protected from erosion by their packing and the conditions of the silty sea floor. It wasn't until 1998 that fishermen diving for sea cucumbers discovered the wreck, lying in shallow waters less than three kilometers offshore.

The newly uncovered Belitung shipwreck was immediately vulnerable to looting and damage. Neither local nor national authorities had the resources necessary to explore or protect the site. Yet without exploration it was impossible to assess its importance, meaning unique historical data could have been lost if no action were taken.

As it happened, the site contained crucial information about trade between the major empires of the period, Abbasid Iraq and Tang China—making this one of the most important archaeological revelations of the twentieth century. 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 archaeological recovery of both ship and cargo has allowed for a radical reappraisal of the Maritime Silk Route to China, answering questions on the nature of Asian sea trade with far greater certainty than was possible before.

The Indonesian government's decision to authorize a commercial enterprise, Seabed Explorations, to explore the Belitung shipwreck set into play a series of events, which eventually led to the sale of the cargo to a nonprofit organization in Singapore and to the organization of the Shipwrecked exhibition. The exploration and disposition of the ship's cargo involved a complicated interplay of government, private business, archaeologists and other scholars, nonprofit organizations, and interested onlookers.

While particular in some ways, the events surrounding the discovery and excavation of the Belitung resemble those of many shipwrecks. They thus serve as a compelling example of the challenges faced in the preservation of underwater cultural heritage. Additional details regarding the Belitung excavation can be found in the websites and articles linked below.

Further Reading

Tang Cargo Exhibit: Briefing Paper (PDF)

Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds Exhibition Catalogue


Flecker, Michael. "A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters." International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Volume 29(2), 2000.

Flecker, Michael. "A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum." International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 37(2), 2008.

Rettel, Andreas. "The Concept of the Conservation of Seawater Finds." The Belitung Wreck: Sunken Treasures from Tang China, unpublished. (New Zealand: Seabed Explorations, Ltd., 2004).

Worrall, Simon. "Made in China." National Geographic Magazine. June 2009.


The Jewel of Muscat
Seabed Explorations


Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds Press Page

Media Backgrounder: Discovery, Recovery, Conservation and Exhibition of the Belitung Cargo

Smithsonian Hosts Discussion on Issues Surrounding the Exhibition of the Belitung Cargo

pots underwater

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

The Freer|Sackler is closed for renovation and reinstallation. The popular exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan is still on view in the International Gallery. (Enter through the Ripley Center.) Join us for our reopening celebration on October 14–15, 2017.