Tang Shipwreck: Digging into Controversy

Asia, Singapore, Southeast

The Tang Shipwreck gallery at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum

In the ninth century CE, an Arabian dhow sailed from the Middle East to China, possibly bringing precious cargo from Africa, Arabia, Persia, and other places along its journey to the Far East through the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, and all the way into the South China Sea. On the way back, after setting sail from the port of Canton in southern China, the dhow, which by now had been fully loaded with tens of thousands of fine Tang-dynasty ceramics and gold items, traveled the same route to return home. However, it never made it through the Strait of Malacca as it veered off hundreds of kilometers to the south of what is now Singapore and nothing was ever heard again of the ship.*

*   *   *

One day in 1998, a group of fishermen started their day uneventfully. Off the coast of the Indonesian island of Belitung, they were looking for sea cucumbers which would sell at quite a high price, providing some much-needed income during the deteriorating state of Indonesia’s economy following the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis. It was a turbulent year that saw the sharp plunge of the rupiah (the national currency), the Indonesian economy shrink by 15 percent, and the fall from power of a military dictator who had ruled the country for 32 years. That day, however, the fishermen didn’t get sea cucumbers. Instead, they discovered a shipwreck. And no ordinary one too, for it turned out to be what remained of the dhow that had sailed these waters more than one thousand years ago.

News spread fast of the remarkable find, and it reached a businessman and treasure hunter named Tilman Walterfang. Through his New Zealand-based company Seabed Exploration, which formed a contract of cooperation with an Indonesian salvage company, Walterfang commenced the excavation of the site in August 1998, only three months after Indonesia swore in a new president for the first time in more than three decades. While the central government was still engulfed in chaos, it is believed that Walterfang procured the shipwreck and its cargo through dubious processes, i.e. bribing officials who were responsible for issuing the documents Seabed Exploration needed to take the artifacts out of the country.

Excavation was halted in October 1998 due to the rough seas as the rainy season had started, but in April the following year the entire process was sped up and completed. In their report to the Indonesian government, Seabed Exploration said they unearthed 47,000 artifacts, although according to a source which was quoted by an investigative magazine, the number was likely as high as 80,000. A former Seabed Exploration employee claimed that the company purposefully damaged around 20,000 items to circumvent an inspection by the government. The objects that managed to leave the country were then transported to a private facility in New Zealand to undergo conservation processes, assisted by Andreas Rettel who trained at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz, Germany. The artifacts were then authenticated by Professor Geng Baochang, an expert on Chinese antique ceramics.

In 2005, the conserved cargo was purchased by a Singaporean private company as well as the Singaporean government. The media reported that 63,000 items were procured by the city-state, highlighting yet another discrepancy of the total number of artifacts from the shipwreck. The commercial nature of the excavation and its short time frame (months instead of years) sparked controversy among archaeologists and anthropologists in the U.S., for the artifacts were scheduled to be displayed at an exhibition at the Smithsonian. Some argued that showing them to the general public would only promote the looting of archaeological sites, while proponents of the exhibition believed that instead of cancelling it, the Smithsonian could use the event to educate the public about the consequences of the commercialization of underwater heritage.

Today the artifacts call Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) home, where some of the finest and most unique pieces are displayed at the Tang Shipwreck gallery. From a multitude of items used by the dhow’s multinational crew to various types of ceramics produced at different kiln centers in China, the impressive collection, which is described as “the richest and largest consignment of early ninth-century southern Chinese gold and ceramics ever discovered in a single hoard”, provides a glimpse into the Tang dynasty’s cosmopolitan outlook and is a testament to the long history of trade along Asia’s maritime routes.

In its official booklet, the ACM states that the government of Singapore purchased the artifacts in 2005 due to their significance in the trading history of the region, and the conservation of the Tang shipwreck and its cargo was carried out to make Singaporeans proud of the history of the island’s port – an explanation that is predictably Singaporean in its nationalistic, over-compensating tone. Next to the gallery where some of the artifacts are now displayed – some in an artistic manner – lie the Maritime Trade and Court & Company Galleries, showcasing cultural exchanges within Asia as well as among Asian nations and the rest of the world.

*   *   *

When I learned about this shipwreck, so many questions popped up in my mind. Had Tilman Walterfang’s company not excavated it, would the precious cargo have been safe considering how desperate the Indonesian people were at that time, given the collapse of the economy and high levels of inflation? Would proper excavation processes that might have taken years save a lot more artifacts, or would they actually expose the shipwreck to greater threats? Had the gold and ceramic items stayed in Indonesia, would they have been safe at the country’s under-funded museums?

This makes me think of other ancient artifacts now housed in Europe and North America which were procured in ways that might violate today’s international conventions on archaeology and cultural heritage preservation. Those rare items had been transported far away from where they were found due to wars that ravaged their native lands, or colonialism, or looting. Keeping them at museums in developed countries ensures their safety and preservation, proponents say. But on the other hand, displaying them permanently far from home will disconnect people from their history, their roots, and their identity.

Debates over the right thing to do when handling an archaeological site will gradually result in further improvements in excavation methods. But maybe, just maybe, when time is not on our side, speed can do more good than harm. It still might save more than it would damage. But through the advancement of technology, maybe one day this would no longer be an issue when proper excavation can be carried out both quickly and safely. And I surely hope that day comes sooner than we think.

Some of the artifacts found in the shipwreck

Pitchers with animal decorations

Bowls produced at kilns in Changsha, China

Diverse designs of Changsha ceramics

From the kiln, to the bottom of the sea, and now to the museum

Stem cup with a duck, made in the ninth century

Vestiges of past cultural exchanges

A Vietnamese pitcher in the Maritime Trade and Court & Company Galleries

A Japanese keg with a Dutchman sitting on a barrel

An 18th-century incense burner assembled in Europe with elements imported from China and Japan

Sculptures of the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child from the Philippines

A Chinese fan made from lacquer, wood, and silk

Hong Kong depicted in the mid-19th century

Sri Krishnan Temple, a Tamil Hindu temple in Bencoolen, Singapore

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, A Buddhist temple also in Bencoolen

British colonial architecture on Bencoolen Street

*the dhow might actually have been on its way to ports in Java where nutmeg and clove (originating from the Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia) and other spices were traded.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

46 thoughts on “Tang Shipwreck: Digging into Controversy”

  1. Interesting article, thank you for sharing. 🙂
    It is fascinating how a culture can be preserved throughout time, may it be in artefacts or other ways to name them. The world overflows with treasures beyond the human sight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And thanks for reading! Cultural artifacts like these allow us to learn about the past and how things were interconnected so we have a better understanding of our presence today and what we can do for the future. Therefore it is very important to preserve such cultural “treasures”.


    • It is indeed mind-boggling to learn about the shipwreck’s past, the items loaded onto it, and how they ended up in Singapore.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Waaaa aku belum sempat ke ACM. Padahal waktu itu aku ke National Gallery nya pas Singapore lagi heboh-hebohnya ngadain balapan dan harusnya udah deket kan? Ntar kapan-kapan kayaknya harus museum and gallery hopping nih disana… terus liat foto shipwreck kok aku jadi ingat Kinetic Sculpture rain-nya changi yaa… ??

    Liked by 1 person

    • ACM buat orang-orang kayak kita sih bagus banget mbak, apalagi di bagian atasnya yang isinya patung-patung Hindu dan Buddha dari berbagai wilayah di Asia (selengkapnya di post saya selanjutnya, hehe). Gak salah kalau Mbak Riyanti jadi keinget sama kinetic sculpture yang di Changi. Bedanya yang di ACM ini statis. Kalau bisa gerak-gerak bakal lebih dramatis sih, tapi bahaya nanti piring-piring tua itu malah pecah. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I always love going to the ACM, Bama – and I just knew you would enjoy wandering the museum as much as I did. It is indeed controversial how the shipwreck was excavated, but I suppose having these incredible artifacts displayed in Singapore is still better than shipping them off to Europe or North America, where there wouldn’t be the same kind of historical or cultural relevance. Thanks for taking us through such a thought-provoking exhibition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very much agree with you, James. Had those artifacts ended up thousands of kilometers away from where they were found, I wonder if there would be the same amount of attention given to them as they receive today. I really have to thank you for introducing me to the ACM!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Outstanding research and moving article of the wonders our our past. Sad that such history is not shared more freely today. Appreciate your work! Will follow and share!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess blogging is a good alternative for sharing information among like-minded people, and that’s why I put a lot of time for fact-checking before I publish a post. Input and feedback are always welcome, though. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is all so fascinating, and such an encapsulated moment in history. The collection of artifacts recovered is so diverse and shows such whimsy — that stem cup with the duck in the center! The human spirit seems equally creative and entertaining then as it is now. I’m so eager to see this museum when I return to SE Asia someday! Excellent post, Bama.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That little duck also caught my attention. The fact that some people who lived hundreds of years ago came up with the idea of adding a duck to the center of the cup is really fascinating. You should visit this museum when you return to Singapore one day, Kelly! (and when you do, you know Jakarta is not that far away).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When I read about the Kiwi guy and his company I fully expected the full trove to have ended under the hammer at Sotheby’s… Glad it turned out differently.

    It’s amazing how ‘globalization’ was already at play back then!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly. If that had been the case, we wouldn’t have been able to see most of the treasures today for they would’ve ended up at collectors’ houses.

      There’s a lot of things people today are unaware of regarding to how ‘globalized’ the world were back then.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Misstumbler says:

    “A former Seabed Exploration employee claimed that the company purposefully damaged around 20,000 items to circumvent an inspection by the government. ” —-> This saddened me. However, I agree with you, if these precious artifacts kept by Indonesian government at that time, not many people, will have a chance to adore it. I visited Indonesian museums few years ago. Some are in a very sad condition (not only about the building). I wish the government will give these museums a proper funding, and educate local people to appreciate it. The ACM is amazing, I visited them a couple of time. Look at that incense burner you posted here, how pretty that is !

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have the same feeling toward most of the museums in Indonesia. Many invaluable artifacts suffer from neglect due to lack of funding, and to make things worse until a few years ago theft was a major problem for many museums in the country. If the government is slow in acknowledging the importance of providing such institutions with adequate funding, at least what we can do is to help raise the awareness among regular Indonesians.


  8. Fascinating story, Bama, and I agree with your thoughts on where the artifacts ended up. I also agree that the ages-old displaying of cultural items far from their roots has caused the misappropriation of many things over the years, but I can also see (some of) it as enlightening to those who do see these treasures far from their provenance. As in most things in life, I wish there could be a balance, and I wish money were not the driving force behind so many of these kinds of decisions. I really love the first photo that seems to show some of the retrieved bowls arranged in a piece that mimics the roiling sea beneath that dhow. Very creative and beautiful, I think!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Easier access for regular people like us to see cultural items displayed in museums all over the world and the speed of information dissemination over the internet help us all understand each other better, and hopefully reduce prejudice as well.

      That art installation using some of the ancient bowls from the shipwreck instantly caught my attention as I went inside this part of the ACM. Cleverly made!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. First of all, I love your multi dimensional approach to any issue/topic you tackle. Thank you for a very interesting read. I also appreciate your voicing your own reaction and concerns about unknowable potential outcomes of what would have happened if the company did not fund and execute the quick recovery etc. But now let me switch gear….

    You quite rightly point to a pattern of artefacts from all over the world winding up in European, U.S., Canadian museums and yes no doubt, many of the items that are sitting in Western museums might not have survived untold scenarios of theft, resale, breakage, damage etc. But to me, the interesting point is this: we have a choice as a society, to return these artefacts to their original owners/countries now. Every day. Every day that Western museums retain the art, paintings, sculptures etc that have flowed their way, they are complicit in the perpetration of “winner takes all”. This is why it was so impressive when President Macron of France started returning, voluntarily, precious and rare artefacts to the current governments of prior colonies. No doubt there must be some basic safety, security discussions to ensure that the recipient can manage the asset, but the intentional return of a nation’s history was a powerful moment.

    Seeing this asset now in Singapore, I can’t help but wonder who the rightful owners would be? Indonesia where it was found? China because of the point of departure?

    Thank you for a thought provoking post about this archaeological dilemma.


    Liked by 2 people

    • I wasn’t aware of what Macron has done regarding to the artifacts stolen by France during its colonial rule in the world. Thanks for enlightening me on this! What I’m aware of is the reopening of the Africa Museum in Belgium which now confronts the country’s colonization of Congo.

      One of the places I most want to see in Europe is the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Netherlands where some Indonesian cultural artifacts are currently being displayed. I’ve been to some ancient temples in Java, the original homes for those statues of Hindu gods and goddesses which now call the museum home. I’m sure a visit to the Dutch institution would provide me with a richer understanding of my country’s past. I wonder if those artifacts will ever be returned one day.

      Thanks for reading and sharing some interesting thoughts, Ben.


  10. You’ve presented the case in all of its complexity. Until money is no longer the strong arm behind the excavation, collection, and distribution of artifacts this issue of who gets to unearth what and where it resides will always be contested. I love it when artifacts are displayed in-situ, but realize that’s not always possible. On another note: what exquisite works of artistry were being sailed across the waters at the time of the shipwreck!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And as money will remain important in the foreseeable future, I’m afraid little will change regarding to this issue. Talking about displaying artifacts in-situ, it makes me think of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan. It’s such a mind-blowing archaeological site, but the constant threats it faces might force those who care about saving this invaluable heritage site to remove the artifacts somewhere safe.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Bama, this is an nicely done post (with wonderful photos, as usual) that brings to mind an interesting thing about shipwrecks, particularly trading vessels. They’re such an interesting snapshot of life at the time. Traders have to transport what people will buy, so there’s always an assortment of attractive and appealing goods that people want, on both ends of the journey. Frequently, the trade goods, like the ones on this vessel, are for sale to rich people, but sometimes there’s a “trickle-down” in society and eventually cheaper knockoffs are made and make their way down to anyone who can afford them.

    As to the issue of looting national treasures, I suspect that in these days of instant global communication and awareness it should be less of an issue than it once was. Of course, there are always going to be unscrupulous operators driven by nothing but profit, but at least the potential for scrutiny and international exposure should make their job harder. ~James

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks James! It’s interesting to learn about how global trade took shape into how we know it today. It has always been among human’s interests to procure objects that are fascinating and rare, and in many societies this shows one’s social status, which is the very reason why the “trickle-down” effect occurred because everyone wants to feel special.

      With today’s technology and better transparency I do hope the issue of looting will be of a lesser concern, except probably in war-torn places. However, it does require an extremely sophisticated plan for anyone who’s thinking of doing such thing to make it work.

      Liked by 2 people

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