Tang Dynasty relics in Arab dhow - huge 90s find rewrites history

Posted Oct 19, 2008 by Paul Wallis
The Tang Dynasty was one of the world’s great civilizations. Nobody knew, however, that it was trading as far away as the Persian Gulf. So many Tang pieces, of exceptional quality, were found, it's taken ten years to analyze the find.
Emperor Yang of Sui
Portrait painting of Emperor Yang of Sui, commissioned in 643 by Taizong, painted by Yan Liben (600–673)
Courtesy Wikipedia
This is interesting from a navigational perspective, too. Early navigators, understandably, tended to stick to coastlines, but finding your way to China from Persia isn’t exactly easy. So lugging thousands of pieces of materials from China to Persia is no minor deal.
Even more intriguingly, and not very noticeable from Chinese histories, is any mention of sea trade. The Silk Road was working flat out, and trade through the western nations was well known, but not like this.
Sea trade makes sense, because of the bulk haulage capacity. Even allowing for pirates, one voyage would be extremely profitable. That may be the reason for what seems to be an Emperor’s interest in this cargo.
The BBC:
Ten years ago, at a spot known locally as "Black Rock", two men diving for sea cucumbers came across a large pile of sand and coral.
Digging a hole, they reached in and pulled out a barnacle-encrusted bowl. Then another. And another.
They had stumbled on the oldest, most important, marine archaeological discovery ever made in South East Asia, an Arab dhow - or ship - built of teak, coconut wood and hibiscus fibre, packed with a treasure that Indiana Jones could only dream of.
There were 63,000 pieces of gold, silver and ceramics from the fabled Tang dynasty, which flourished between the seventh and 10th centuries.
Among the artefacts was the largest Tang gold cup ever discovered and some of the finest Yue ware - a porcelain that the ancient Chinese likened to snow because of its delicacy.
The exceptional quality of the goods has led some scholars to suggest that these were gifts from the Tang Emperor himself.
That imperial link’s not at all unlikely. This is high quality merchandise, and there weren’t so many people able to afford thousands of pieces of upmarket merchandise. It could well have been a major sales pitch for Chinese products, too. The buyers would have been top level Persian customers.
Nor would the ship owner have been doing business on the basis of pure cultural exchange. This would have been the equivalent of Drake’s voyage.
It all came unstuck, though, either through the ship hitting a reef, or a pirate attack that sank the ship. If sea trade with China had really worked, history could have been very different. Not until the Ming Dynasty's legendary Zhang He's voyages did China attempt to trade with the Indian Ocean nations by sea.
Historians, however, have hit a jackpot. This will rewrite history, and as the BBC article says, maybe one day find a real Sinbad the Sailor.