Indonesian Divers Discover Treasures From Enigmatic ‘Island of Gold’

gold jewelry and beads held in a hand
The Srivijaya Empire was known for its wealth and dominance of maritime trade routes. Courtesy of Wreckwatch magazine

Local divers exploring Indonesia’s Musi River have found gold rings, beads and other artifacts that may be linked to the Srivijaya Empire, which controlled sea trade across large swaths of Asia between the 7th and 11th centuries C.E.

“In the last five years, extraordinary stuff has been coming up,” British maritime archaeologist Sean Kingsley, who reported on the discoveries in the autumn issue of Wreckwatch magazine, tells the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge. “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.”

Among the discoveries are a life-size Buddhist statue covered in precious gems, temple bells, mirrors, wine jugs and flutes shaped like peacocks, reports Stephanie Pappas for Live Science.

The kingdom of Srivijaya began in Palembang, a city located on the Musi River on the island of Sumatra. Per Encyclopedia Britannica, the empire controlled the Strait of Malacca—a key route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans—and established trade with groups in the Malay Archipelago, China and India. Srivijaya was also a center of Mahayana Buddhism.

Indonesian Divers Discover Treasures From Enigmatic 'Island of Gold'
Buddha statue found by divers Courtesy of Wreckwatch magazine

Seventh-century Chinese reports indicate that Palembang was home to more than 1,000 Buddhist monks. Chinese Buddhists stopped in the city to study Sanskrit during pilgrimages to India, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism. In 1025, war with India’s Chola dynasty reduced Srivijaya’s power, though it continued to play a role in trade for another two centuries. 

As Kingsley writes in Wreckwatch, archaeologists have found no traces of royal court buildings, temples or other structures. It’s possible that the island’s volcanoes covered them. But another likely explanation is that the city was built mostly out of wood, with homes and other buildings constructed on rafts that floated on the river—a type of architecture still seen in some Southeast Asian countries today, per Live Science. Such structures would have rotted away long ago.

Much of the surviving information about Srivijaya comes in the form of fantastical accounts by travelers who describe sensationalized sights like man-eating snakes and multilingual parrots but offer few details about daily life. Per Wreckwatch, the kingdom was rich in gold, which it used strategically to build relationships with China and other regional powers. Srivijaya also financed Buddhist temples and monasteries in India, China and Java. Silver and gold coins from the empire 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 excavations have been conducted in or around the Musi River. But amateurs have been finding treasures there since 2011, when construction workers discovered a number of artifacts while dredging sand from the river. Soon, local fishermen and workers began exploring the body of water, some during “clandestine [nighttime] dives,” according to a 2019 report by the Australian National Centre of Excellence for Maritime Archaeology. Large numbers of these artifacts then showed up on the antiquities market. Many ended up in private collections, leaving little physical evidence about the civilization for scholars to study.

Indonesian Divers Discover Treasures From Enigmatic 'Island of Gold'
Ruins of the Srivijaya-era Wat Kaew in Chaiya, Thailand Ahoerstemeier via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

“We’re starting at ground zero,” Kingsley tells 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 off, nothing. We don’t know anything about them in life or in death.”

Indonesia put a moratorium on underwater archaeology in 2010. But as Kingsley points out, a black market in artifacts discovered during nighttime dives continues.

“Fishermen don’t stop fishing and they don’t stop discovering,” he tells Live Science. “Only now, they’re even more unlikely to report finds to authorities.”

The archaeologist adds that it’s possible the government or a wealthy benefactor will purchase Srivijaya artifacts for preservation and study before they’re all acquired by private collectors.

“Newly discovered, the story of the rise and fall of Srivijaya is dying anew without being told,” he tells the Guardian.

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