Curating the Oceans: The Future of Singapore’s Past

First posted to HNN

This post won the Cliopatria Awards 2009 ‘Best Post’ Award.

The Gaspar Strait runs between the Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung, some 300 miles southeast of Singapore, where I sit today, writing these words. Its calm, blue surface belies the snarl of rocks and reefs beneath, and the so-called Belitung Wreck is just one of many ships that met its demise in these perilous waters. In 1998, a German prospector by the name of Tilman Walterfang dove into the strait and struck gold: or rather, some gold, silver, and lots of pots. Over the year, his prospecting company pulled 60,000 handmade artifacts out of the heavily silted waters in the Gaspar, from the wreck of a large ship that we now know sunk sometime in the ninth century. Its contents, known vaguely as ‘the Tang treasure’, have been said to enlarge forever the boundaries of our knowledge of Chinese Tang dynasty maritime history and of the nature and dimensions of early Asian trade. For the next six years or so, the treasure languished in a New Zealand warehouse, while Qatar, Shanghai, Singapore and private collectors all vied vigorously for ownership. In 2005, Singapore bought the lot. And this afternoon, I had the good fortune to be taken for a private tour of it.

Junks and their junk

The vessel that sunk was likely a dhow of Arab or Indian origin, a conjecture substantiated well by Michael Flecker, an archaeologist who was invited by Tilman Walterfang himself to direct and document the excavation. (Some of Flecker’s academic papers on the topic, as well as a fascinating but brief clip of part of the excavation, can be found here). According to Flecker, one of the most striking features of the dhow is that it was not held together with nails or dowels, but sewn together, likely with coconut-husk fibers. Its probable destination is also well established. In the world of the ninth century, dominated economically by two imperial giants — Tang Dynasty China and Abbasid Persia — the ship has been reasonably thought to be sailing from one to the other, probably from Guangzhou to Basra. The vessel is purported to be the first of Middle Eastern origin found in Southeast Asian waters.

Singapore, alas, didn’t acquire the actual ship, so I didn’t get to see it. We saw the Tang treasure instead. At present, most of it is housed in an unassuming basement at the bottom of the Hua Song Museum in Singapore. The place looked to me, as I walked in this evening, a little like a bomb shelter.

Tang treasure

What strikes you almost as soon as you walk into the warehouse is the sheer scale of production. It seems that China then, as now, was mass producing and exporting their goods in staggering quantities — several centuries earlier than scholars have previously thought. You might say that in the hold of this sunken ship lurked, for 1200 years, a kind of ancient Ikea.

Tang treasure

The serial nature of most of the cargo, and the fact that the ceramics exhibit styles distinct to at least five different kilns from all over China, both seem to suggest that this was an export vessel. Of particular interest is the enormous quantity of mint-condition Changsha pottery, a form of Southern Tang ceramic readily identified by its distinctive brown and straw-coloured glaze.

Tang treasure

The Changsha specimens found in the Belitung wreck are decorated with an enormous range of motifs. There is something for everyone: lotuses, makara fish and Chinese calligraphy for the Buddhists, invocations of Allah and non-pictorial, geometric patterns for the Muslims, and everything in between. These are not terribly valuable in and of themselves; they are, as Simon Worrall’s droll appraisal in his article in National Geographic goes, “the Tang equivalent of Fiestaware”.

This photo by Tony Law, National Geographic

But there were a few big fish amidst these plebeian offerings: articles so valuable that they are kept elsewhere, under armed guard. These were artifacts found in the stern of the ship: a small clutch of exquisite, royal-grade items, valuable not only in dollar terms, or for their exquisite craftsmanship, but in terms of their historical import. They include a fine octagonal-shaped gold cup — the largest Tang dynasty gold cup ever found, featuring Persian-looking men and women embossed on each face — and three incredibly rare, perfectly preserved specimens of pre-Yuan blue and white porcelain.

These photos by Tony Law, National Geographic

The latter is a particularly interesting testament to the cross-cultural fertilization that characterizes Silk Road histories. Cobalt oxide was almost certainly brought to China by Arab traders; the ore from which it is made can only be found in West Asia, and particularly in Persia. When Arab traders brought cobalt oxide into Guangzhou and began commissioning blue and white ceramics from China, they set into motion the process by which China began to create porcelain that would, over the course of the next five centuries, become so iconic that they came forever to bear China’s name. The story of cobalt oxide is quite well known amongst scholars, but the Jingdezhen blue-and-whites only really began to take off in the late Yuan period. These three small plates, from a ship wrecked in the ninth century, disclose a longer, deeper history.

My personal favourites, however, were the most plebeian offerings of all: those artifacts encrusted with barnacles and corals. In the whole collection, they stood out to me like elegant anomalies, mute witnesses of a millennia of submergence, and utterly beautiful.

Tang treasure


Just like the waters of the Gaspar Strait, there too are hidden currents to the Belitung Wreck. For one thing, it came to Singaporean hands amidst a maelstrom of legal wrangling. In 2004, Tilman Walterfang became entangled in a court case when his own marketing agent, Baron Nicolai von Uexkull, took him to court for defaulting on the payment of his (the Baron’s) salary and commission, for the work of negotiating the sale of the treasure. In 2005, not long after the treasure was finally sold to Singapore’s Sentosa Leisure Group following months of negotiation, it emerged that the good Baron had, in his earlier negotiations with Singapore, allegedly disclosed price-sensitive information to the buyers. Walterfang then sued Von Uexkull in 2006 for breach of confidentiality.

As if that weren’t enough: in the course of the sale, Walterfang also became embroiled in a controversy with the Indonesian government, who accused him of failing to pay them the fair share of the proceeds from the treasure. 53,000 pieces of the Tang treasure were sold to Singapore for some US$32 million. Under Indonesian conservation law, the state government is entitled to half of this, but it appears that only US$2.5 million or so ever made it into Indonesian coffers. The Indonesians are, naturally, highly displeased, and it seems unclear how Walterfang managed to get away with this. There have been, unsurprisingly, allegations of bribery.

But the most interesting hidden current, for me, is the way in which a find like this slowly gets shaped into history. Curators and creative minds at the Singapore Maritime Heritage Foundation, which was brought into existence for the purpose of administering the treasure, are right now groping for a Grand Story, a narrative into which the Tang treasure can fit. In particular, there’s talk of a great Maritime Silk Route Museum to be built in Singapore to house and exhibit these wares. Its story will no doubt vaunt Singapore’s central place at the elbow of a great oceanic route that ran parallel to the overland Silk Road. Its objectives will no doubt be to inscribe Singapore into a wider and more ancient world history, and to give historical credence to a position that is crucial to Singapore’s self-image today: as a global, maritime entrepot, and the lodestone on which Southeast Asia turns.

Counterfactual thinking here might be illuminating. What if Qatar, or Shanghai, had been successful in the bid? What if, amidst all that legal wrangling, Singapore had been jostled out of the buy, or if the Indonesian government had somehow got their act together, claimed the wreck and written it into a narrative demonstrating the magnificence and global reach of the great Srivijaya Empire, instead? What stories would be spun then, out of these fragments we shore up against our ruins? When you visit Singapore one day in not-too-distant years to come, and your Lonely Planet guidebook exhorts you to visit the brand new Maritime History Museum of Singapore, it will be beautifully done, stimulatingly presented. But remember this: none of it was set in stone. We sculpt our own stones, and we call that process history.


34 responses to “Curating the Oceans: The Future of Singapore’s Past

  • flory

    the barnacle-encrusted ones look like actual clayware – kind of like that ceramic artist i was telling you about. i love it i love it i love it

  • Frog in a Well - The China History Group Blog

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  • noelbynature

    what a great peek into the Belitung shipwreck treasures! that said, I’ve never been comfortable with the fact that Singapore bought the treasures and have thus laid an implicit claim to it – especially since there are so many international influences acting on the ship (past and present).

    Any idea when the maritime museum is set to open?

  • Rachel

    don’t hold your breath — they’ve already been sitting on the whole lot for over four years. but things do seem to be grinding slowly into motion. just keep an idle eye on it 🙂

  • Natalie Ong

    hi rachel,
    i’m currently writing up the catalogue for a ceramics exhibition that i’m coordinating. the belitung cargo features in it, so if you’re interested in what the rest might entail, drop me a line.

    great job, keep it up!

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  • nst

    If commercial interests win out, it is possible that the present owners would indeed try to weave a story of Singapore being a node in a thousand-year old trading route, but that would conflict with present doctrine that Singapore was a mere fishing village before the arrrival of Raffles.

    Admittedly, historical accuracy has never stood in the way of entertainment for tourists, but it would be interesting to see a government-owned compant try to square the circle of a glorious past that existed before the “official” history of Singapore begins.

    • Mark Lee

      The current view is that the “sleepy fishing village” image of pre-raffles Singapore is inaccurate in light of recent archaeological evidence. It is now very clear that Singapore was a trading entrepot during the 14th century, albeit never as grand and wealty a port as Pelambang during the height of the Srivijayan empire.

  • Rachel

    What’s more interesting to me is that the wreck was found so far south of the ‘elbow’ – much closer to Palembang than anywhere else, and farther south than a ship rounding the peninsula heading for Basra would perhaps need to for a fuel stop. It’s led some to speculate that the ship may have been ferrying goods from China to the other big power in the region — Srivijaya — either on its way to the Middle East, or perhaps not to Basra at all.

    But scholarly work, so far, is quite speculative. I’m looking forward to more concrete findings in years to come.

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  • Su Lin

    Beautiful photos (especially the barnacle) and great last sentence. Lovely piece Rachel, thanks for sharing.

    p.s. have you published your ideas about blue-white porcelain and cross-fertilization?

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  • Rachel

    thanks Su Lin! – I haven’t published anything about blue-white porcelain, and I don’t think they’re particularly my ideas, just things I’ve seen scholars of porcelain say here and there. Maybe I should write something up nonetheless… Ah, time, time.


    On National Day of Singapore, we got to see the Tang Belitung shipwreck story on National Geographic Channel:

    Secrets Of Tang Treasure Ship. (The next at 1 pm Aug 9th)

    So far this is the most amazing shipwreck ever found in Asian and Middle East history

  • tommy

    Thank you for posting this. Particularly excited about the blue-and-white porcelain as I’ve never seen any designs like them and I think these are extremely exciting in the context of blue-and-white ceramic history. Currently the most important ones thought to date the lineage of this style is a pair of (rather ugly) vases in the Percival David collection exhibiting at the British Museum. These Tang plates are very pleasing to my (modern) eye but I wonder why I haven’t seen any evolved versions through the dynasties. Perhaps like the typical blue-and-white we have come to know, they are originally made for export markets/foreign tastes. Agree completely with your last paragraph. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since seeing Mainland China-produced “historical” films.

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    This Belitung/Batu Hitam shipwreck and the Cirebon wreck are the two most important shipwrecks ever found in Indonesia and Asia as well.

  • ynotoman

    The wreck exhibition is in Oman from the 14th December 2010
    this is it being organised

  • aeldwood

    Dear Rachel,

    Please be so kind as to contact me at essene (@)

    I would like to discuss the possibility of collaborating with you re:

    the use of excerpts from your article on the Tang Shipwreck.


  • ArkRoyal

    I noticed a new commentary at:

    and at CNN:

    and at Smithsonian Institute:

    Hope these links help in understanding the present debate.

    From striking an isolated reef off Indonesia in the 9th century AD to its display this month in Singapore’s futuristic ArtScience Museum, the Belitung cargo has finally reached port. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds is a major exhibition organized jointly by the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, the Singapore Tourism Board and the National Heritage Board of Singapore that will crisscross the globe in the next five years from Asia to the USA, Europe and Australia, before the ship docks ‘home’ in the Near East a millennium late. Just when the wreck’s salvation from oblivion should be secure and celebrated, like the storm-struck mythical Sinbad himself the physical wreck is again sailing troubled waters.

    The 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.
    The Belitung wreck was tracked down by Seabed Explorations in 1998, when the German company was awarded an excavation license by the Indonesian government. The fieldwork was completed in 1999 and the majority of finds sold in 2005 to the Sentosa Leisure Group for $32 million. A million miles from the spot where the Belitung cargo and hull were at risk from destruction at the hands of looters and fishermen, some Washington scholars are now criticizing the current show for endorsing commercial wreck recovery. Ted Schultz, chair of the National Museum of Natural History Senate of Scientists, believes that “substantial scientific information was lost due to the methods employed” during the excavation. Bruce Smith, a Curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, similarly concludes that “this exhibition would send a very bad message to the public, that the Smithsonian doesn’t stand for the preservation of archaeological resources and that mining archaeological sites is OK.”
    These few noisy critics see the recovery of the Belitung wreck as ‘treasure hunting’, which flies in the face of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage’s demand that “underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited”. Are these scholars ethically right to be affronted by the decision to promote this old ship in a travelling exhibition?

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  • HJL

    I found this article on

    Click to access IIAS_NL58_404142.pdf

    extremely helpful in understanding the current discussion about the Belitung wreck and Tilman Walterfang ‘s Seabed Explorations.
    The article explains some of the “undercurrents” in Rachel’s text and shows clearly why we are dependent on commercial operators with good values, if we want to preserve historic treasures that lie in such a difficult political and physical environment!
    i hope you find it helpful.

  • Harrison

    Great info. Lucky me I found your site by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have saved it for later!

  • Peter W.

    A very thorough analysis about the Belitung Shipwreck, the actions of the Indonesian government, Seabed Explorations and Tilman Walterfang:

    Click to access 6-%20Coleman%20Note.pdf

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