Silk Road in the News #8: A Maritime Silk Road Stop in Australia?

Coins from Kilwa, ca. 900 ACE
Coins from Kilwa, ca. 900 ACE

African coins, some possibly minted as early as 900 ACE, have been found buried on the Wessel Islands of Northern Australia, and have thrown accepted notions of when non-Aboriginal peoples first visited the continent into question. The oldest of the coins were minted in Kilwa, an island off the coast of Tanzania that was once a luxurious stopover for merchants and travelers on the Maritime Silk Road.

For over 600 years, Kilwa was the most prominent port, trading post, and resort on the east African coast. It had a glittering mosque, decorated with coral and Chinese porcelain, and a palace with an octagonal swimming pool. It controlled the trade in gold, ivory and slaves out of Zimbabwe, up into Arabia, into Persia and across to India.

Originally discovered in 1944 by an Australian soldier, Maurice Isenberg, the coins were treated as personal curiosities for decades until Isenberg sent them for appraisal in 1979. At that time, Isenberg found that 5 of the coins were over 1,000 years of age and from Africa, while the others were minted by the Dutch East India Company.

The coins came to the attention of an Australian graduate student, Ian Mcintosh, before Isenberg died in 1991. In July of this year, Mcintosh, who is now a Professor from the Indiana University-Purdue University, will be leading a team of international researchers to the Wessel Islands to try to discover how the coins came to the island. They will be using a map, hand-drawn by Isenberg, to locate the site of the original discovery and to determine whether other artifacts could be buried nearby.

Great Mosque at Kilwa
Great Mosque at Kilwa

The Kilwan coins could have come to Australia as part of a horde from much later than 900 ACE, or they could be evidence that non-Aboriginal peoples stopped on the Wessel Islands when trading goods from Africa for those from the Indo-Pacific along the Maritime Silk Road over 1,000 years ago.

It is unlikely that African merchants brought the coins to Australia, unless as sailors on other vessels, because African ships weren’t equipped to go further to sea than Arabia and India. They could travel up to Arabia on small boats sewn together by coconut fibers. But once they got to Arabia and India, large vessels from these nations could travel all the way to Tang China and down into the Spice Islands.

Additionally, the famed Chinese-Muslim mariner, Zheng-He made many, celebrated trips from mainland China to Africa and back during his life time in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. He was also not the first Asian to trade for Africa’s rich bounty of animals, spices, ivory and gold.

Other finds from the Indo-Pacific, including the wreck of an Arab-style dhow off the Indonesian island of Belitung are evidence for an early, rich trade between China, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. One of the bowls found aboard that wreck had a manufacturing date of July 16th, 826 ACE – earlier even than the Kilwan coins.

I will be watching the progress of Mcintosh’s work closely and report significant findings here. So, stay tuned.

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of the Great Mosque at Kilwa from Wikimedia; Photo of the Kilwan coins from original news reports of the story.)

The Silk Road in the News #4: Ancient Soup from 400 BCE

Chinese Archaeologist Examines 2,400 Year-Old Soup Cauldron











Imagine the world around 400 BCE. The Phonecians in Carthage were the dominant power in North Africa; Socrates had just been condemed to death; in Mesoamerica, the Olmec civilization entered a period of terminal decline; and a Chinese nobleman was laid to rest in his tomb in Xian with enough ancient soup and wine to see him through to the afterlife.

After 2,400 years the couldron or ting containing the soup has been opened and it was found to contain an oxidized liquid and a few stock bones. 2,400 year-old soup. I cannot help to wonder what it was made of. but I won’t have to wonder long, because tests are being done to determine the ingredients inside the pot. In the larger, unopened vessel in the photograph, a substance thought to be wine was also found.

I’m betting its a thin, salty, beef-based broth with a souring agent like vinegar to dissolve the calcium from the bones. Perhaps some daikon and mushroom or cabbage could have adorned the broth and Sichuan pepper or star anise was added for flavor along with a bit of ginger or garlic. Only time will tell what food/medicine this man brought with him to the grave. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo borrowed from the internet alternatively seen with AFP and Xinhua credits.)

Silk Road in the News #3: Oldest Share Discovered

Oldest Share Certificate

A share of stock issued in 1606 by the sea trading firm Dutch East India Company has recently been discovered in the Netherlands.

Locked away in forgotten city archives, the share was made out to Pieter Harmensz, from the Dutch East India Company has recently been found in the northwestern city Hoorn.

As the Netherlands’ largest trading company in the 17th and 18 centuries, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was also the world’s first company to issue stock. Dutch research has shown the VOC faced early financial difficulties and shareholders were not initially paid dividends.

The company finally started paying dividends in 1610, partly in money and spices, following strong shareholder pressure. The share is on display at the Westfries Museum. (Words by Laura Kelley).

The Silk Road in the News #2: A Silk Road Shipwreck

Levantine Daggerhandle from Chinese Ship

The contents of a Chinese shipwreck estimated to be more than 1000 years old will be coming to auction soon according to a spokesman from the Government of Indonesia. The contents of the ancient ship has been salvaged and curated over the last few years will soon be available for public sale. The bulk of the material salvaged was fine Chinese white or green ware, but the hull also contained Egyptian artifacts and Lebanese glass. The wooden ship sank in the Java Sea and provides importance evidence of the Silk Road maritime trade from over a millennium ago.

Although precious, sunken Chinese ships laden with goods from around the globe are common enough to warrant their own museum as witnessed by the opening of the Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum, in Yangjiang City, China. (Words by Laura Kelley).