An ordinary ship and its cargo can tell the story of far-flung global markets, human voyaging, and early industrialization in China that supplied exports to the world. Sometime after 825 CE an Arab dhow set sail from the port of Guangzhou in coastal south China, having unloaded its goods from the Near East, and reloaded with some estimated 70,000 ceramics and other items, on its return voyage to the Abbasid empire. Taking the route that has been called “the maritime silk road,” this hand-sewn ship made of planks fastened with coconut fiber (without any nails) seems to have decided to offload some cargo first in maritime Southeast Asia, perhaps intending to pick up a secondary cargo of spices, resins, and aromatics for which the Indonesian islands were famed. The dhow sank near the island of Belitung, at a reef called Batu Hitam (“Black Rock”).
Fifty-five thousand ceramic wares, along with gold and silver ornaments, ingots, mirrors, ewers, vases, jars, cups, incense burners, boxes, flasks, bottles, graters, and the like—and two objects that may have been children’s toys, and a re-soldered gold bracelet sized for a woman’s wrist—were excavated intact in 1998, and are housed at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. This ninth-century dhow is the only ship of its kind ever recovered, though hand-sewn ships that plied the Indian Ocean are described in travel accounts from as early as the first-century CE. The dhow is a remarkable example of the global ships carrying people, goods, ideas, religion, and culture, which knit the world into relationship along transoceanic routes. Its vast trove of ceramics is the earliest physical evidence attesting the industrial production of ceramics in China for export to foreign markets as early as the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Designs painted on the great majority of the ceramic wares were favored in the export market, not in China.
Part of the trove includes prototypes of blue-and-white ceramics for which China would become famous 400 years later: ceramic experiments that feature Iraqi designs attesting global interrelationships in art and the exchange of ideas. The crews of ships such as this one were multiracial, multireligious, and assembled from everywhere: The cargo, knowledges, and stories these diverse, anonymous voyagers helped to transfer across the world transform our understanding of scale, time, and globalism.