It has been claimed that the ninth-century shipwreck found near the island of Belitung, Indonesia, is that of an Arabian ship. The evidence for this is examined in detail, and found to be less than convincing. The identifications of samples of wood from the wreck are shown to be unreliable at species level. The construction technique of the ship appears to resemble that of the eastern Indian Ocean, not the western Indian Ocean. Various items from the wreck connect it with Southeast Asia: a piloncito coin probably came from Java. Very little from the ship suggests any link at all with the western Indian Ocean. Overall, the strongest probability is that the ship was built in Southeast Asia.
1 Haw, Stephen G., “The Maritime Routes Between China and the Indian Ocean, during the second to ninth centuries CE”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, XXVII, 1 (2017), pp. 53–81.
2 See Flecker, Michael, “A 9th-century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology XXIX, 2 (2000), pp. 199–217.
3 Flecker, Michael, “A 9th-century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum”, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology XXXVII, 2 (2008), p. 384.
4 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum”, p. 385.
5 For those unfamiliar with botanical nomenclature, a useful introduction is Gledhill, , The Names of Plants, 4th edition (Cambridge, 2008). All names of plant species appearing in this paper are those accepted by The Plant List: a working list of all plant species, 2013, www.theplantlist.org.
6 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 215; Flecker, Michael, “A Ninth-century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence for Direct Trade with China”, World Archaeology XXXII, 3 (2001), p. 347.
7 Léonard, J. J. G., “Notes sur les genres paléotropicaux Afzelia, Intsia et Pahudia (Legum–Caesalp.)”, Reinwardtia I, 1 (1950), pp. 61–66.
8 Hepper, F. N., “Tropical African Plants XXXI”, Kew Bulletin XXVI, 3 (1972), p. 565.
9 The Plant List gives both Afzelia bracteata Benth. and A. parviflora (Vahl) Hepper as accepted names; http://www.theplantlist.org/tpl1.1/search?q=Afzelia (Accessed 31 August 2016); however, A. bracteata Vogel ex Benth. is listed as a synonym of A. parviflora (Vahl) Hepper by Donkpegan, Armel S. L., Hardy, Olivier J., Lejuene, Philippe, Oumorou, Madjidou, Daïnou, Kasso and Doucet, Jean-Louis, “Un complexe d'espèces d’Afzelia des forêts africaines d'intérêt économique et écologique (synthèse bibliographique)”, Biotechnologie, Agronomie, Société et Environnement XVIII, 2 (2014), p. 235, Tab. 1.
10 Guy, John, “Rare and Strange Goods: International Trade in Ninth-century Asia”, in Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, (eds) Krahl, Regina, et al. (Washington and Singapore, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/ National Heritage Board, 2010), p. 20
11 For a distribution map of all the African species of Afzelia, see Donkpegan et al., “Espèces d’Afzelia des forêts africaines”, p. 234, Fig. 1.
12 Tom Vosmer, “The Jewel of Muscat: Reconstructing a Ninth-century Sewn-plank Boat”, in Shipwrecked, (eds) Krahl, et al., p. 123.
13 van Zinderen Bakker, E. M. Sr, “The Late Quaternary History of Climate and Vegetation in East and Southern Africa”, Bothalia XIV, 3/4 (1983), pp. 370–371.
14 Donkpegan et al., “Espèces d’Afzelia des forêts africaines”, p. 234, Fig. 1; C. Orwa, A. Mutua, R. Kindt , R. Jamnadass, S. Anthony, Agroforestree Database: a tree reference and selection guide version 4.0, (2009), Afzelia quanzensis Welw., pp. 2–3. Available online: http://www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb/AFTPDFS/Afzelia_quanzensis.PDF. (Accessed 21 July 2016).
15 Fattovich, Rodolfo, “Egypt's Trade with Punt: New Discoveries on the Red Sea Coast”, British Museum Studies on Ancient Egypt and Sudan XVIII (2012), p. 11; Sidebotham, Steven E., “Archaeological Evidence for Ships and Harbor Facilities at Berenike (Red Sea Coast), Egypt”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 6 (2008), pp. 308–309.
16 Vosmer, “The Jewel of Muscat”, p. 123. It must be wondered how these “planks and frame blanks” were transported. “The biggest problem with the transportation of timber was on land. Hauling one single tree out of the forest required the work of two-hundred to three-hundred people. … A tree was usually not transported from the spot where it was felled to the nearest waterway over a distance of more than … approximately 200 m”; Columbijn, Freek, “A Moving History of Middle Sumatra, 1600–1870”, Modern Asian Studies XXXIX, 1 (2005), pp. 8–9 n. 10.
17 There is a claim of a plank of wood “tentatively identified as cf. Afzelia” at Quseir al-Qadim, but this identification may well have been influenced by the identifications of wood from the Belitung ship. The wood was “in very poor condition, very degraded and structurally collapsed”; Marijke van der Veen, Consumption, Trade and Innovation: Exploring the Botanical Remains from the Roman and Islamic Ports at Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt, Frankfurt am Main, Africa Magna, 2011 (Journal of African Archaeology Monograph Series 6), p. 210. If it is really Afzelia, it might of course be A. quanzensis, but in view of its stated condition, it is hard to understand how any identification could possibly be accurate.
18 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 207.
19 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum”, p. 385.
20 C. Orwa, A. Mutua, R. Kindt , R. Jamnadass, S. Anthony, Agroforestree Database: a tree reference and selection guide version 4.0, (2009), Tectona grandis L.f., p. 4. Available online: http://www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb/AFTPDFS/Tectona_grandis.PDF. (Accesssed 1 September 2016); Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence”, p. 346.
21 Sidebotham, “Ships and Harbor Facilities at Berenike”, p. 310.
22 Dahms, K.-G., “Das Holzportrait: Ebenholz”, Holz als Roh- und Werkstoff XLVIII (1990), p. 385, Tab. 1.
23 Yule, Henry and Burnell, A. C., Hobson-Jobson: a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive, new edition, (ed.) Crooke, William (London, Murray, 1903), p. 842; Casson, Lionel, “Periplus Maris Erythaei 36: Teak, not Sandalwood”, Classical Quarterly XXXII, 1 (1982), pp. 181–182.
24 Belfioretti, Luca and Vosmer, Tom, “Al-Balīd Ship Timbers: Preliminary Overview and Comparisons”, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies XL (2010), pp. 113–114.
25 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum”, p. 385.
26 Hou, Ding, “Studies in Malesian Caesalpinioideae (Leguminosae). I. The genera Acrocarpus, Afzelia, Copaifera, and Intsia”, Blumea XXXVIII (1994), pp. 318–319.
27 Kaosa-ard, Apichart, “Teak (Tectona grandis Linn. f.): its Natural distribution and Related Factors”, Natural History Bulletin of the Siam Society XXIX (1989), pp. 55–58, Fig. 1; Verhaegen, Daniel, Fofana, Inza Jesus, Lagossa, Zénor A. and Ofori, Daniel, “What is the genetic origin of Teak (Tectona grandis L.) introduced in Africa and in Indonesia?” Tree Genetics and Genomes VI (2010), pp. 717–718, 729–730.
28 The identification of Juniperus procera is admitted to be much less than certain. This juniper is a montane species, growing at altitudes above 1,100 m, and therefore not readily available at the coast; C. Orwa, A. Mutua, R. Kindt , R. Jamnadass, S. Anthony, Agroforestree Database: a tree reference and selection guide version 4.0, (2009), Juniperus procera Hochst. Ex Endl., p. 2. Available online: http://www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb/AFTPDFS/Juniperus_procera.PDF (Accessed 4 September 2016). Moreover, if the ceiling timbers were cargo (see below), they would have been loaded in China, far beyond the range of Juniperus procera.
29 Agius, Dionisius A., Classic Ships of Islam: from Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean (Leiden, Brill, 2008), p. 148.
30 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 200, Fig. 1.
31 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum”, p. 386; Haw, “Maritime Routes”, p. 80.
32 Burger, Pauline, Charrié-Duhaut, Armelle, Connan, Jacques, Albrecht, Pierre, and Flecker, Michael, “The 9th-Century-AD Belitung Wreck, Indonesia: Analysis of a Resin Lump”, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology XXXIX, 2 (2010), p. 386.
33 Piloncito coins are reported from Java and the Philippines; Wicks, Robert S., “Monetary Developments in Java between the Ninth and Sixteenth Centuries: A Numismatic Perspective”, Indonesia XLII (1986), pp. 51 note 27, 55–57.
34 Michael Flecker, “A Ninth-century Shipwreck in Indonesia: The First Archaeological Evidence of Direct Trade with China”, in Shipwrecked, (eds) Krahl, et al., p. 119.
35 Thomas, Claire, “Plant Bar Code Soon to Become Reality”, Science CCCXXV (31 July 2009), p. 526.
36 Harry A. Alden, “Scientific Limits of Microscopic Wood Analysis of Objects d'Art”, 26th AIC Annual Meeting, Poster Session; Arlington, VA. 1998. Available online: https://www.si.edu/mci/downloads/reports/scientific_limits_wood.pdf. (Accessed 31 August 2016).
37 Alden, “Scientific Limits of Microscopic Wood Analysis”; Wiedenhoeft, Alex C., “The Limits of Scientific Wood Identification”, Professional Appraisers Information Exchange IV, 2 (2006), p. 16; Cartwright, Caroline and Middleton, Andrew, “Scientific Aspects of Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Egypt”, British Museum Technical Research Bulletin II (2008), p. 62.
38 Wheeler, Elisabeth A. and Baas, Pieter, “Wood Identification – a Review”, IAWA Journal XIX, 3 (1998), p. 251. This article (pp. 241–264) gives a very good overview of the complexities and problems of identifying woods, although it is now slightly dated. It was not dated when the identifications of wood from the Belitung ship were made.
39 Moldenke, Harold N., “A Monograph of the genus Tectona as it occurs in America and in Cultivation”, Phytologia I, 4 (1935), p. 155; Moldenke, Harold N., “Additional Notes on the genus Tectona. II”, Phytologia V, 4 (1955), pp. 134, 139–142.
40 Nili Liphschitz, personal communication (email dated 22 August 2015).
41 It is in fact not known with any degree of precision how many species of woody plant exist; Fitzjohn, Richard C. et al. , “How much of the World is Woody?”, Journal of Ecology CII (2014), pp. 1266–1272.
42 InsideWood, (2004 onwards), Database details. Available online: http://insidewood.lib.ncsu.edu/databasedetails. (Accessed 31 August 2016). Cf. the following statement: “There are thousands of species of woody plants, and woods of some have never been described or incorporated into any key. Descriptions of many woods are only based on one or a few samples, and so the range of variability of some species and genera is not known. Not only is there the variability expected when comparing different individuals of the same species from different localities and/or with different genotypes, but also the huge amount of wood anatomical variation that depends on position in the tree … or age of the wood material …”; Wheeler and Baas, “Wood Identification”, p. 259.
43 InsideWood. (2004 onwards), The genus Afzelia. Available online: http://insidewood.lib.ncsu.edu/results?18. (Accessed 31 August 2016).
44 Zhengyi, Wu, Raven, P. H. and Deyuan, Hong (eds), Flora of China, Vol. 4, (St Louis and Beijing, 1999), p. 74.
45 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, pp. 205, 216; Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence”, p. 347.
46 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 216; Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence”, pp. 347–348.
47 As has been admitted, in fact; Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 213; Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence”, pp. 345–346.
48 McGrail, Seán, Boats of the World from the Stone Age to Medieval Times (Oxford, 2004), pp. 1–2; Vosmer, Tom, “Indo-Arabian Stone Anchors in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea”, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy X (1999), p. 248. According to Vosmer: “The western Indian Ocean has yet to yield a wreck site that predates the European expansion into the region in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries”. This is confirmed by Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence”, p. 336: “This is the first shipwreck of probable Arab or Indian origin dating before the second millennium ad to have been excavated”.
49 On tung oil, see Haw, Stephen G., “Tung oil and tong 桐 trees”, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, CLXVII, 1 (2017), pp. 215–236.
50 Qufei, Zhou 周去非, Lingwai daida jiaozhu 嶺外代答校注, annotated by Yang Wuquan 楊武泉 (Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1999), juan 6, p. 218.
51 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 209.
52 Vosmer, Tom, “Indo-Arabian Stone Anchors in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea”, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 10 (1999), pp. 250–254.
53 Souter, Corioli, “Stone Anchors near Black Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka”, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology XXVII, 4 (1998), pp. 334–336.
54 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 214, Fig. 25.
55 Vosmer, “Indo-Arabian Stone Anchors”, p. 253.
56 Agius, Classic Ships of Islam, p. 177, Ill. 49.
57 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, pp. 206–207, 211.
58 Belfioretti and Vosmer, “Al-Balīd Ship Timbers”, p. 116; for illustrations of stitching of this kind, see Agius, Classic Ships of Islam, pp. 164, 165, Ill. 46 and 47. Agius (p. 164) remarks that: “one would have expected to find treenails in the plank edges of the third/ninth-century Belitung (Indonesian) wreck recovered in the Java Sea, but none were found”. See also Pomey, Patrice, “A Comparative Study of Sewn Boats from the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Question of Gujarat”, in Gujarat and the Sea, edited by Varadarajan, Lotika (Vadodara, Darshak Itihas Nidhi, 2011), pp. 138–143. Pomey describes three techniques of construction of sewn vessels in the western Indian Ocean, all of which involve the use of dowels or of rabbeting, and even of nails, and none of which has wadding under the stitching outboard.
59 Sidebotham, “Ships and Harbor Facilities at Berenike”, p. 310.
60 Patrice Pomey, “Ship Remains at Ayn Soukhna”, in The Red Sea in Pharaonic Times: Recent Discoveries along the Red Sea Coast (Proceedings of the Colloquium held in Cairo/Ayn Soukhna 11th–12th January 2009), edited by Pierre Tallet and El-Sayed Mahfouz (Cairo, Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 2012), pp. 38–39, 41, 42, 46.
61 Belfioretti and Vosmer, “Al-Balīd Ship Timbers”, pp. 113–116.
62 Belfioretti and Vosmer, “Al-Balīd Ship Timbers”, p. 116; Hornell, James, “The Origins and Ethnological Significance of Indian Boat Designs”, Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal VII, 3 (1920), pp. 158–159.
63 Kentley, Eric, “The Masula – A Sewn Plank Surf Boat of India's Eastern Coast”, in Boats of South Asia, McGrail, Seán with Blue, Lucy, Kentley, Eric and Palmer, Colin, (London, 2003), pp. 141–142, 147–150, p. 149, Fig. 5.13.
64 Kentley, “The Masula”, pp. 139, Fig. 5.8, 141. These are characteristics of the Belitung ship: Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, pp. 199, 205–207.
65 Kress, W. John, De Filipps, Robert A., Farr, Ellen and Kyi, Daw Yin Yin, A Checklist of the Trees, Shrubs, Herbs, and Climbers of Myanmar, 4th edition (Washington, DC, National Museum of Natural History, Dept. of Systematic Biology – Botany, 2003), p. 180.
66 Bellina, Bérénice and Glover, Ian, “The Archaeology of Early Contact with India and the Mediterranean World, from the Fourth Century BC to the Fourth Century AD”, in Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History, (eds) Glover, I.C. and Bellwood, P. (London, 2004), p. 68.
67 Shizi guo, here written 師子國, but usually 狮子國, “the Lion Country”, that is Siṃhāla.
68 Zhao, Li 李肇, Tang guo shi bu 唐國史补 (Shanghai, Guji chubanshe, 1979), juan xia, p. 63.
69 Genkai, Aomi-no Mabito 真人開元, Tang da heshang dong zheng zhuan 唐大和上東征傳, annotated by Wang Xiangrong 汪向榮 (Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1979). pp. 73–74.
70 Bellina and Glover, “Archaeology of Early Contact with India and the Mediterranean World”, pp. 74, 83. For specific evidence of cross-cultural influences in boat building (at a somewhat later period), see Selvakumar, V., “Contacts between India and Southeast Asia in Ceramic and Boat Building Traditions”, in Early Interactions between South and Southeast Asia: Reflections on Cross-cultural Exchange, (eds.) Manguin, Pierre-Yves, Mani, A. and Wade, Geoff (Singapore, 2011), pp. 208–212.
71 Bielenstein, Hans, Diplomacy and Trade in the Chinese World 589–1276 (Leiden, 2005), pp. 71–76; it must be noted, however, that it is not clear that all of these missions travelled by sea. Some might have journeyed overland. The Chinese Mojiatuo 摩伽陀 certainly seems to be a transcription of Maghada, although that kingdom no longer existed during the Tang period. Presumably the name had persisted. On this question, see Sen, Tansen, Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600–1400 (Honolulu, 2003), pp. 19, 250 notes 7 and 8.
72 Sen, Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade, pp. 1–2, et passim.
73 Hall, Kenneth R., A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development, 100–1500 (Lanham, 2011), pp.16–17, 65–66.
74 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence”, p. 339. On the other hand, it must be at least possible that the ship had loaded a cargo of mainly Chinese goods in some entrepôt in Southeast Asia.
75 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence”, p. 342.
76 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 210; a second bowl is said to bear the characters bingwu 丙午 which could also be 826, but bingwu years recur every sixty years.
77 Zhao, Bing, “Chinese-style Ceramics in East Africa from the 9th to 16th century: A Case of Changing Value and Symbols in the Multi-partner Global Trade”, Afriques VI (2015). Available online: http://afriques.revues.org/1836. (Accessed 3 September 2016).
78 Hsieh Ming-liang, “The Navigational Route of the Belitung Wreck and the Late Tang Ceramic Trade”, in Shipwrecked, (eds) Krahl, et al., p. 143.
79 Guillot, Claude, Dupoizat, Marie-France, Perret, Daniel, Sunaryo, Untung and Surachman, Heddy, Histoire de Barus, Sumatra: Le Site de Lobu Tua, Vol. 2, Étude archéologique et Documents (Paris, 2003), p. 103.
80 Hsieh, “The Navigational Route of the Belitung Wreck”, p. 143.
81 Haw, “The Maritime Routes”, p. 73 On Kalāh, see Tibbetts, G. R., A Study of the Arabic Texts containing material on South-east Asia (Leiden, 1979), pp. 118–128. The importance of Bengkulu in early times is indicated by the fact that, along with Barus, it is one of only two locations on Sumatra where significant quantities of early Sumatran coins have been found; Wicks, “Monetary Developments in Java”, p. 51 note 27; Wicks, Robert S., Money, Markets, and Trade in Early Southeast Asia (Ithaca, 1992), pp. 233–234.
82 Schuessler, Axel, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (Honolulu, 2007), pp. 248, 370.
83 Miksic, John N., Historical Dictionary of Ancient Southeast Asia (Lanham, 2007), p. 181.
84 Haw, “The Maritime Routes”, pp. 73, 75–76.
85 Pires, Tomé, The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires: An Account of the East, from the Red Sea to Japan, written in Malacca and India in 1512 – 1515, translated and edited by Cortesão, Armando, Vol. 1 (London, Hakluyt, 1944), p. 45; Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence”, p. 352.
86 For a discussion of this point, see Stephen G. Haw, “The Maritime Routes”, pp. 68–69.
87 Vosmer, Tom, “The Belitung shipwreck and Jewel of Muscat”, in The World in the Viking Age, (eds) Sindbæk, Søren M. and Trakadas, Athena (Roskilde, 2014), p. 59.
88 Indian Coast Guard, Western Region, News (March 2010). Available online: http://www.indiancoastguard.nic.in/Indiancoastguard/Regionnews/Western%20Region/Web/2010/Mar10.htm. Accessed 8 November 2015. In the ninth century, there was no Indian Coast Guard.
89 On the times of year when ships sailed across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, see Haw, Stephen G., “Islam in Champa and the Making of Factitious History”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Series 3, XXVIII, 4 (2018), pp. 717–747.
90 “Coast Guard to Escort ‘Jewel of Muscat’ to Kochi”, The Hindu, 15 March 2010. Available online: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-kerala/coast-guard-to-escort-jewel-of-muscat-to-kochi/article728634.ece. (Accessed 5 September 2016).
91 Asian Yachting June News, “RSYC Hijacks Jewel of Muscat Stopover”, 23 June 2010. Available online: http://asianyachting.com/MultiMedia/News/June2010NewsRSYCHijacksJewelOfMuscat.htm. (Accessed 6 September 2016).
92 Vosmer, “The Belitung shipwreck and Jewel of Muscat”, pp. 59–60: Vosmer, “The Jewel of Muscat”, pp. 122, 135.
93 Flecker, “Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters”, p. 209, Fig. 20.
94 As can be seen by comparing Flecker's sketch, cited in the previous note, with Fig. 91: Plan for the Jewel of Muscat, in Vosmer, “The Jewel of Muscat”, p. 126.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.
* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.
Usage data cannot currently be displayed