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Medieval Asian shipwrecks shed new light on ancient maritime trade

How much is known about medieval maritime trade between the ancient Asian and Arabian powers? Unfortunately, not as much as historians and museums would like. However, this year, along the coast of Singapore in the Indonesian waters, a massive discovery was made that is shedding new light on ancient oceanic trade.

Several shipwrecks were discovered buried underneath a sludge of mud and water, carrying a total of about 66,000 preserved artifacts. Scientists, historians, archaeologists and ancient art enthusiasts alike marveled at the sheer size and beauty of the cargo dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries.

John Guy, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, delivered an in-depth lecture at UMBC on Wednesday evening (March 28) on the contents of the cargo and how they connect to what is already known about ancient Asian maritime trade.

The cargo consisted of a variety of bowls, jugs, jars, ceramics and vases, some carrying exotic spices and other smaller kitchenware. What was amazing about the artifacts, Guy said, was that they gave even more evidence of the known trade occurring in East Asia with countries as far away as the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia.

The ceramics and bowls were decorated with art and designs ranging from Arab to Chinese to Indian to Vietnamese. Guy explained the distinctions between the different art styles of the time, revealing that historians use specific artistic techniques in determining origin.  

Among the artifacts was the first-ever Paladin inscription from South Asia. Paladin is an ancient language, nearly forgotten, that was once spoken in Persia. In addition, a Chinese wine jar was found that was clearly copied from Arab artisans, further supporting the now-clear notion that maritime trade occurred to a great extent between these two powers.

Guy also talked about how the Arabs were able to sail to distant shores to sell and trade their goods. They invented ‘dhow’ ships which had a unique design of coconut fiber stitches binding the ship together. This made it a large ocean vessel with a flexible structure able to handle tough weather and sea conditions.

Another item of trade that was of extremely high value was textiles. Although historians know that silks and fabrics were traded as luxury items all around the Asian maritime trade routes, archaeologists have little evidence.

Guy explained that textiles decay underwater and therefore cannot be found in discoveries like these shipwrecks. However, ancient records and inventories give evidence of the trade of luxury textiles. Guy commented that although historians know it happened, archaeologists have never found actual textiles from the time.

The lecture ended with a hopeful statement that the newly discovered shipwrecks have allowed for a, “very clear picture of who was going where,” in terms of medieval Asian maritime trade. Applause ensued and a reception for the audience followed, giving people the opportunity to speak with Guy and enjoy light refreshments.

Learning more about history is vital to understanding the present, and with lectures like Guy’s happening all around UMBC in different departments, academics of all ages can better understand the stories of our world today.