The 1,200-year-old sunken treasure that revealed an undiscovered China

The journey began in a noisy, provincial factory that churns out concrete pillars for the German building industry. It ended with cities bidding for the world's largest collection of ninth-century Chinese treasure

The journey began in a noisy, provincial factory that churns out concrete pillars for the German building industry. It ended with cities bidding for the world's largest collection of ninth-century Chinese treasure

Tilman Walterfang, 47, was works director at the concrete company, miles from the sea in Germany. Now he presides over a multimillion-dollar haul of Chinese treasure discovered in the seas of south-east Asia.

Mr Walterfang's fascination with submerged wrecks began when an Indonesian employee described the translucent, reef-strewn waters of his native island of Belitung, between Borneo and Sumatra. Treasure, he said, lay under the waves.

The stories were irresistible. Mr Walterfang packed his scuba gear and flew to Indonesia with his employee. The trip was intended to be only a summer holiday diving adventure but it changed Mr Walterfang's life.

He chucked in his job and moved to Indonesia. Swapping central Germany's grim industrial landscape for white, palm-fringed beaches and the azure blue Java sea, he lived in a waterfront villa that belonged to an former Indonesian government minister.

Mr Walterfang read intensively about the rich maritime history of the region, for centuries among the world's major ocean thoroughfares, which is still infested with pirates. He made friends with fishermen, divers so poor they use improvised breathing-masks fed with air pumped from the surface through garden hoses, instead of gas bottles, to reach the ocean's depths. Above all, Mr Walterfang dived too.

He followed a lead provided by his fishermen friends who had presented him with a handful of broken pottery they had gathered during a dive. Donning his black, neoprene wet-suit and diving bottle he plunged 50ft down to a reef off Belitung.

"I landed on what looked like an ordinary section of coral reef," Mr Walterfang told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine. "But it was actually an underwater mound the size of a small hill that was built almost entirely of tens of thousands of pieces of well-preserved ceramic pottery."

That was six years ago. His discovery was the second of three wrecks - the third being the Tang - which has turned out to be an undersea treasure trove of such massive historical significance that Shanghai, Singapore and Doha in Qatar are vying with each other to buy the cargo. The 60,000 pieces Mr Walterfang collected from the seabed, include porcelain ceramic wine jugs, and tea bowls, embossed golden and silver chalices and plates found to be 1,200 years old.

The treasure was part of a huge cargo of eighth-century porcelain that traders from the Chinese Tang dynasty had put aboard an Arab dhow for export to Malaysia, India and what is now Saudi Arabia. The dhow's remains, found among the treasure, suggest the ship was wrecked on the treacherous underwater reefs of Indonesia's Karimata straits on its outward voyage through the Java sea.

Until Mr Walterfang's find, archeologists had assumed that 1,200 years ago, China was a relatively backward country which relied primarily on agriculture to survive. They had little notion that the Tang dynasty of the period, had already started to set up maritime trading routes that were to establish China as the first great sea power, 200 years before the Spanish, Portuguese and British had theirs.

Yet the "Batu Hitam wreck", as Mr Walterfang's find is described, has forced them to alter their perception of ninth-century China radically. John Guy, curator of the Indian and South-east Asian section of the Victoria & Albert Museum said: "Sometimes things happen which dramatically broaden the limits of our knowledge. The discovery of the Tang period wreck is such an event."

Archeologists say the Batu Hitam wreck provides incontrovertible evidence that, 1,200 years ago, China had started sea trade as an alternative to the then well-established Silk Road that extended from China through Asia to the Arab world. The overland route was fraught with problems: in the eighth century the Chinese had not yet developed the skills to bake pottery to present levels of durability, so many of their exports arrived at their destinations shattered and broken.

Export by sea became the logical alternative. Yet, as the Batu Hitam wreck has established, the Chinese were at first forced to rely on the expertise of Arab seamen who had perfected the dhow as an ocean-going vessel, to export their goods. But the wealth China created through its maritime exports enabled the country to build its own navy. By 1237, China was the predominant global sea power, with 52,000 seamen manning a vast fleet.

Tilman Walterfang's collection including blue, and green and white porcelain pieces, 22 silver and seven gold chalices and plates is now stacked in a closely-monitored aircraft hangar in New Zealand. The banks of shelves containing the priceless objects are 15ft high.

The first clues to the age of the treasure were provided by inscription on the bottom of two glazed bowls recovered from the wreck which dated them as being from the "16th day of the seventh month of the second year of the reign of Emperor Yingsong", which established 826 as the date.

A second clue came from the remains of an aniseed and raisin concoction that had been hermetically sealed from the ravages of time and water in an earthenware jug. Radio carbon analysis in New Zealand showed that the contents dated from between 680 and 890.

A third clue was an inscription under the heavily corroded metal of a bronze mirror which established the item had been smelted "100 times" in the city of Yangzhou on the Yangtze river in December, 758.

Evidence that the cargo played a key part in China's eighth-century global export drive was provided by a chemical analysis of the wreck, which showed that the 90ft vessel was built of Indian and African wood as an Arab dhow.

Michael Flecker, the Australian archeologist who worked on the wreck said: "We can assume the ship was manned by Arabs and Indians who had intended to sail back from Yangzhou to one of the caliphates of the Arab world when they were wrecked in a storm off Belitung."

Final proof that the treasure was authentic was provided by 81-year-old Professor Doc Geng Baochang, the deputy director of Peking's Forbidden city and China's foremost expert on antique ceramics. He believes the treasure belongs to China.

Yet Shanghai is the only Chinese city bidding for the collection. Archaeologists hope the eventual buyer of the treasure, which is now in the final stages of desalination, will showcase the collection in its own museum to display the unique time capsule from China's golden age.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Data Administrator

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of this mu...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - £40,000 - £70,000 OTE

£40000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: (Senior) IT Business Analyst - London - European projects

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful & reputable global business is l...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Project Manager

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness