Local divers exploring Indonesia Musi River found gold rings, pearls and other artifacts that may be related to the Srivijaya Empire, who controlled maritime commerce across vast swathes of Asia between the 7th and 11th centuries CE
‘Over the past five years extraordinary things have happened,’ said British maritime archaeologist Sean kingsley, who reported on the findings in the fall issue of Wreck Watch magazine, tell the Guardianit’s Dalya Alberge. “Coins from all eras, gold and Buddhist statues, precious stones, all kinds of things you might read in Sinbad the sailor and think it was invented. It’s actually real.
The kingdom of Srivijaya began in Palembang, a town located on the Musi River on the island of Sumatra. Through Encyclopedia Britannica, the empire controlled the Strait of Malacca, a key route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and established trade with groups from the Malay Archipelago, China and India. Srivijaya was also a center of Mahayana Buddhism.
Chinese reports from the 7th century indicate that Palembang was home to over 1,000 Buddhist monks. Chinese Buddhists stop in town to study Sanskrit on pilgrimages to India, Indonesia says Ministry of Tourism. In 1025, the war with India Chola dynasty reduced Srivijaya’s power, although he continued to play a role in commerce for another two centuries.
As Kingsley writes in Wreck Watch, archaeologists have found no evidence of royal court buildings, temples or other structures. It is possible that the island’s volcanoes covered them. But another likely explanation is that the city was built mostly of wood, with houses and other buildings built on rafts that floated on the river – a type of architecture seen again in some Southeast Asian countries today, for Live Science. Such structures would have rotted a long time ago.
Much of the surviving information on Srivijaya comes in the form of fantastic traveler’s tales that describe sensational sights such as man-eating snakes and multilingual parrots, but offer little detail on day-to-day life. Through Wreck Watch, the kingdom was rich in gold, which it used strategically to forge relations with China and other regional powers. Srivijaya has also funded Buddhist temples and monasteries in India, China and Java. The empire’s silver and gold coins were stamped with a sandalwood flower and the word “glory” in Sanskrit, writes Sian Boyle for the Daily mail.
Kingsley tells Live Science that no official archaeological excavation has been carried out in or around the Musi River. But hobbyists have been finding treasures there since 2011, when construction workers discovered a number of artifacts while dredging sand from the river. Soon fishermen and local workers began to explore the body of water, some during ‘clandestine [nighttime] dives ”, according to a 2019 report by the Australian National Center of Excellence for Maritime Archeology. Many of these artifacts subsequently appeared on the antique market. Many ended up in private collections, leaving little physical evidence about civilization for researchers to study.
“We’re starting from zero,” Kingsley says Live Science. “It’s like walking into a museum wing, and it’s completely empty. People don’t know what clothes the people of Srivijaya wore, what their tastes were, what kind of ceramics they liked to eat, nothing. We don’t know anything about them in life or in death.
Indonesia put a moratorium on underwater archeology in 2010. But as Kingsley points out, a black market in artifacts discovered during night dives continues.
“Fishermen keep fishing and they keep discovering,” he says. Live Science. “Only now, it is even more unlikely that they will report their findings to the authorities.”
The archaeologist adds that it is possible for the government or a wealthy benefactor to purchase artifacts from Srivijaya to preserve and study them before they are all acquired by private collectors.
“Newly discovered, the story of the rise and fall of Srivijaya dies again without being told,” he told the Guardian.