The site of a fabled Indonesian kingdom renowned for its golden treasures may finally have been discovered on Sumatra, known as the Island of Gold. For the past five years, fishermen exploring the crocodile-infested Musi River, near Palembang, have hauled a staggering treasure trove from the depths – including gemstones, gold ceremonial rings, coins and bronze monks’ bells.
One of the most incredible finds so far is a jewel-encrusted life-size statue of Buddha from the 8th century, which is worth millions of pounds. The artefacts date back to the Srivijaya civilisation – a powerful kingdom between the 7th and 13th centuries which mysteriously vanished a century later.
Dr Sean Kingsley, a British maritime archaeologist, told MailOnline: ‘Great explorers have hunted high and low for Srivijaya as far afield as Thailand and India, all with no luck. Even at Palembang, the traditional location of the vanished kingdom, archaeologists failed to turn up enough pottery to boast even a small village. Srivijaya, the last mighty lost kingdom on earth, has jealously guarded its secrets.’
He added: ‘In the last five years, extraordinary stuff has been coming up. Coins of all periods, gold and Buddhist statues, gems, all the kinds of things that you might read about in Sinbad the Sailor and think it was made up. It’s actually real.’
Sumatra was referred to in ancient times as the Island of Gold due to it being rich in gold deposits and natural resources and was an early point of arrival for trade in Southeast Asia. The sixth and seventh centuries saw a steady increase in Asian maritime trade, with a huge Chinese market opening up. A growing demand for Buddhist rituals, in particular, led to an increase in the export of Indonesian commodities to China.
Dr Kingsley said: ‘Other than the stunning finds of gold and jewels, the riverbed turned up tons of Chinese coins and even greater loads of sunken ceramics. The pots and pans show what a rainbow people lived at Srivijaya. Goods were imported from India, Persia and masses of the finest tablewares of the age from the great kilns of China. This is the sweet spot when the first blue and white porcelain dishes were made, what would become the best brand in the world.’
He has revealed his research in the autumn issue of Wreckwatch magazine, which he also edits. The Srivijayan study forms part of the 180-page autumn publication which focuses on China and the Maritime Silk Road.
He wrote: ‘From the shallows have surfaced glittering gold and jewels befitting this richest of kingdoms – everything from tools of trade and weapons of war to relics of religion. From the lost temples and places of worship have appeared bronze and gold Buddhist figurines, bronze temple door-knockers bearing the demonic face of Kala, in Hindu legend the mythical head of Rahu who churned the oceans to make an elixir of immortality.
‘Bronze monks’ bells and gold ceremonial rings are studded with rubies and adorned with four-pronged golden vajra sceptres, the Hindu symbol for the thunderbolt, the deity’s weapon of choice. Exquisite gold sword handles would have graced the sides of royal courtesans, while bronze mirrors and hundreds of gold rings, many stamped with enigmatic letters, figures and symbols, earrings and gold necklace beads resurrect the splendour of a merchant aristocracy going about its daily dealings, stamping shipping manifests, in the palace complex.’
Srivijaya has been described by Dr Kingsley as a ‘Waterworld, with people living on the river. He believes that when civilisation came to an end, in the 14th century, their ‘wooden houses, palaces and temples all sank along with all their goods’.
At its height, Srivijaya controlled the arteries of the Maritime Silk Road, a huge market in which local, Chinese and Arab goods were traded.
He said: ‘While the western Mediterranean world was entering the dark ages in the eighth century, one of the world’s greatest kingdoms erupted onto the map of south-east Asia.
‘For over 300 years, the rulers of Srivijaya mastered the trade routes between the Middle East and imperial China.
‘Srivijaya became the international crossroads for the finest produce of the age. Its rulers accumulated legendary wealth.’ The size of the population’s kingdom remains unclear. Dr Kingsley told MailOnline: ‘I’ve not seen any robust stats for the population of Srivijaya. They didn’t do a census sadly.
‘The travellers of the age say the kingdom was “very numerous”. Chroniclers wrote that Srivijaya had so many islands, nobody knew where its limits ended. The fact that the capital alone had 20,000 soldiers, 1,000 monks and 800 money lenders gives you an idea that the population was impressive. Look at the size of the great pilgrimage centre of Borobudur, which was paid for out of the king of Srivijaya’s golden vaults.
‘In the 10th century, the population of eastern Java was 3-4 million people. And Java is smaller than Sumatra where Palembang, the capital of Srivijaya, has turned up. It is also not clear why the kingdom collapsed. Kingsley wonders if it suffered the same fate as Pompeii – the result of a volcanic catastrophe – ‘or did the fast-silting, unruly river swallow the city whole?’, he speculates.
Aside from the night dives carried out by the local fishing crews, there have been no official excavations, which leaves many questions unanswered, the Guardian reported. The artefacts found so far are being sold to antique dealers before they can be properly examined by experts.
‘They are lost to the world. Vast swathes, including a stunning life-size Buddhist statue adorned with precious gems, have been lost to the international antiquities market.
‘Newly discovered, the story of the rise and fall of Srivijaya is dying anew without being told.’ The research is covered in the autumn issue of Wreckwatch magazine.