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Belitung Shipwreck (Indonesia)

Tang Dynasty International Trade and the Belitung Shipwreck


Rocky Shore on Belitung Island

Rocky Shore on Belitung Island

Adhi Rachdian

The Belitung Shipwreck is a 9th century Arab or Indian shipwreck discovered in 1998 by a sea-cucumber diver. The wreck lies in the South China Sea north of Belitung Island, Tanjung Pandan, Indonesia, approximately 17 meters below the current water line.

The ship's cargo contained a large number of Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906) ceramics, including Sancai wares. The earliest piece bears an inscription mentioning the third year of Kaicheng, equivalent to AD 838. Other inscriptions date to AD 826, during the reign of Emperor Jing-zong.

Other cargo included lead ballast ingots, a variety of aromatic resins and spices, and numerous Chinese coins, all dated between AD 618-626. The ship had a 15.3 meter long keel with stitched hull planking. The key features include cross-stitched seams with wadding inside and out; a lack of dowels used for edge fastening; a sharp bow with little rake; and an iron and wood grapnel-type anchor.

The Belitung wreck is believed to be of either Arab or Indian construction, based on ship construction methods, and the presence on board of a variety of woods, including Indian or Indonesia Artocarpus and teak. The cargo is entirely Chinese, however, indicating that this ship is prima facie evidence of the international trade between China and either the middle east or India during the Tang dynasty.

Radiocarbon dates on aromatic resin, star anise and the ship's timber were taken, suggesting a probable date between ca AD 680 and 890. The Belitung Shipwreck was excavated by Seabed Explorations between 1998-1999, under the direction of Michael Flecker.


This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Shipwrecks, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Flecker M. 2000. A 9th-century Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesian waters. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 29(2):199-217.

Flecker M. 2001. A ninth-century AD Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesia: first evidence for direct trade with China. World Archaeology 32(3):335-354.

Flecker M. 2008. A 9th-century Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37(2):384-386.

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