In 1998, Indonesian sea-cucumber divers discovered the shipwrecked remains of a ninth century Arab dhow in waters north of Belitung Island on the east coast of Sumatra. Unknown to them,they’d stumbled across the most important maritime discovery in history.
The dhow carried more than 60,000 artifacts ranging from exquisite ceramics to rare and extraordinary items of finely-worked gold. Dating back over a thousand years, the find is considered the most important collection of late Tang Dynasty artifacts ever found outside China. “This exhibition will change the way we visualize the contacts between East and West more than a millennium ago,” says director of the Smithsonian’s Freer of Art and Arthur M. Sackler galleries, Julian Raby. “It brings to life the tale of Sinbad sailing to make his fortune in the China trade.”
Among the many dramatic objects on display is an extraordinary tall ewer measuring over a meter in height, with a dragon-head stopper. Beautiful gold and silverware was also found on the Belitung shipwreck, including a gold octagonal cup decorated with figures of Central Asian musicians and a dancer. The cup is the largest and heaviest Chinese example of its kind, upstaging even pieces known to have been given by the Tang imperial family to the Famen Temple in the city of Xi’an.
“The milestone exhibition is a testament to how history and heritage can transcend boundaries and encourage greater cross-cultural understanding,” says chief executive officer of the National Heritage Board, Michael Koh. Singapore is Shipwrecked’s first stop in a world tour expected to conclude in 2015. And what better location to exhibit these rare gems than the new ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands. Wander through the 12,000-square feet exhibition space for a glimpse into the ninth century world; for insights about the ship and the crew’s life onboard; to learn about the discovery, recovery and conservation of the cargo; and to inspect close to 450 artifacts salvaged from the shipwreck.
It’s an exhibition that tells a story strongly linked to that of our own—the blossoming of a city from a fishing village into a modern thriving metropolis due to its strategic location in the global trade network. And it’s well worth seeing.
Embark on a voyage into the Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds exhibition through Jul 31. ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Ave., 6688-8868. $10-30.