Singapore conjures for a traveler a destination which symbolizes the essence of “…Modern Asia, sparkling and savvy…” Both for travelers as well as for those challenge is to enjoy the conventional and go beyond. This articles presents the Tang Ship wreck along with a fascinating narrative on ceramics of China.
The jar in which ceramics were packed with coral growth
Money makes the world go round, and it is what sells that directs the manner in which tourism as an ‘industry ‘grows in different places. The thematic concept of the ‘exotic’, be it the inherent idea that characterizes a city like Singapore- as Modern Asia, sparkling and savvy, or Lucknow which is sold as the Golden city of the world, or at the exclusion of the city of Agra when the Taj as a symbol of Eternal romance is sold to the world, or the temples of Khajuraho in Archaeology as the Erotic exotica and not the village is popularized. This ‘creation of the exotic’ leads to excluding a range of skills, communities, cultural geographies, it results in marginalizing identities, and essence of locations, sometimes perhaps pain, suffering, struggle or the respect to all things past that have factored in the making of the present.
This first article on Singapore focuses on the permanent exhibit called the Tang Shipwreck, which embodies one such marginalized cultural aspect in the experience of Cultural Heritage of Singapore. It has been recreated, reclaimed and represented in the Koo Teck Puat Gallery in the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore.
The Tang Dynasty in China (6th CE – 9th CE) personifies dynamism in trade, economic, political, diplomatic and cultural expressions. The large number of boats sailing in and out of China connecting it with the world led to a celebrated growth in Chinese art and literature among other things.
On taking a ferry tour on the Singapore River, the traveler comprehends the vibrancy and importance of Singapore as an island of converging trade dynamics in the Indian Ocean since ancient times. It remained a point of the economic heritage of the idea of taxes and levies. With this in mind, one accesses this fascinating exhibit on the Tang Ship Wreck. The reconstructed story of the wreck in the museum introduces the visitor to a larger frame in which Singapore was and continues to exist. Singapore was and remains an important part of the Indian Ocean in the East, the shipwreck represents a tangible form of the intangible exchange of ideas, culture, and products between locations on the Indian Ocean in the East with those in the West such as West Asia better known as Middle East and Africa. The area around the Eastern part of the Indian Ocean was known for variety of goods, skills to repair ships and provide crewmen.
The Tang shipwreck was discovered off the Indonesian Belitung Island in the Java Sea by a fisherman. Most ships sailing West went through the Strait of Malacca, and the fact that it was found in the Java Sea, perhaps could mean that it was either waylaid, or had deliberately deviated for trade in spices to Java, which was common. Since Singapore had advanced techniques of marine archaeology they were invited to conduct the excavation and also to host the shipwreck.
model of the Tang ship with installed ceramic bowls on rods
The ship wreck contained a cargo of a gamut of ceramic objects along with personal belongings of those on the Ship such as glass bottles for medicines common again in Middle East and Africa, grinding stones, games for the those on board to spend their time and luxury items of gold and silver.
games for the crew
From the way the boat was made from African wood, and bound by not using nails, but the wooden parts were stitched with coconut coiled ropes dipped in oil ,it was clear that the final destination was the Abbasid Empire and perhaps Oman.
coiled coconut ropes
The mere size of the ceramic cargo reveals several things. Firstly, there were large number of similar bowls packed in jars in huge quantity. It was therefore evident that there was even those days, a system of e mass production in China due to great demand of a category of a cheaper variety of ceramics.
Mass produced bowls and their packaging
The Exhibition also is a clear indication of hierarchies in ceramics and other goods. It also represents that these variety of ceramics were produced in different kilns located in different parts of China.
For example, there were 300 pieces of white pottery found on the Tang Ship. This category of ceramics was prized both in China and in other parts of the world, and were produced in the Xing Kilns in Northern China and fired at very high temperature.
Other spectacles included the Gold luxury items which clearly communicated lifestyles of higher classes.
This exhibition of the 8th c Tang Ship in Singapore reasserts the multilayers of decoding and comprehending human civilizations when travelling. What was wonderful about the exhibition was the end …. Apparently, once the wreck was completely excavated, the Singapore government and the leader of Oman agreed to build a ship like the Tang Ship, with the same technique and it made a journey from Singapore to Oman. One would think, if this was the case, the wonder of cruises and marine archaeology would open intriguing journeys of great discovery and surprises.