The fishermen were diving at night, so could not be sure at first what they had found in the mud of the River Musi.
But as the dirt was washed away and the sun rose, the treasure’s breathtaking nature must have become clear: gold and jewels from what was once the richest and most powerful empire in South East Asia.
‘[It’s] the kind of thing that you might read about in Sinbad The Sailor and think it was made up. It’s actually real,’ says Dr Sean Kingsley, a British marine archaeologist whose online magazine, Wreckwatch has published a study of the finds: ‘From the shallows have surfaced glittering gold and jewels befitting this richest of kingdoms.’
Srivijaya is probably the greatest empire you’ve never heard of: known as the Island of Gold, the floating kingdom ruled Indonesia (and much of South East Asia) for more than 600 years.
In the 12th century, it vanished without trace, like the fictitious island of Atlantis, said by the Greek writer Plato to have been submerged by the Atlantic Ocean.
Srivijaya’s treasures, even its location, have remained a mystery… until now.
Srivijaya is probably the greatest empire you’ve never heard of: known as the Island of Gold, the floating kingdom ruled Indonesia (and much of South East Asia) for more than 600 years. In the 12th century, it vanished without trace. Srivijaya’s treasures, even its location, have remained a mystery… until now (Stock image)
Lifesize 8th-century AD bronze Buddhist masterwork statue (Pictured), studded with precious gems, fished up from the River Musi, Sumatra, the site of the sunken kingdom of Srivijaya
The treasures being rescued from River Musi, which is one of the world’s most polluted rivers, and date back as far as the 8th century. Gold and ruby-studded jewellery (Pictured) is being found
Fisherman in the city of Palembang, on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, began to stumble across the answers in the murky bed of the vast River Musi five years ago.
Using crude and dangerous diving gear — and dodging the river’s crocodiles — they have hauled up buckets of mud containing glittering clues to the secrets of the Island of Gold.
The startling finds include gemstones and gold jewellery, a life-sized, gem-studded statue of the Buddha (said to be worth millions of pounds) as well as earrings and gold beads from necklaces.
Golden gem-set rings featuring claws, resembling those of birds — viewed as holy by the ancient civilisation — have also emerged. So have gold sword hilts adorned with pronged sceptres, the symbol of a sacred thunderbolt.
The treasures being rescued from one of the world’s most polluted rivers date back as far as the 8th century.
‘Great explorers have hunted high and low for Srivijaya as far afield as Thailand and India, all with no luck,’ Kingsley said this week: ‘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.’
Golden gem-set rings featuring claws, resembling those of birds — viewed as holy by the ancient civilisation — have also emerged (Pictured). So have gold sword hilts adorned with pronged sceptres, the symbol of a sacred thunderbolt
The main reason Srivijaya has proved so elusive to modern scholars is because it was a floating kingdom.
Only the temples and palace of the king were built on land, while ordinary people lived in floating houses made from bamboo and wood and with thatched roofs.
They travelled on canoes lined with reeds. And if they wanted to move, they would simply float their homes down river.
Srivijaya rose to such success because it controlled trading routes on the Great Silk Road.
Almost all the world’s goods, from spices to slaves, passed through its maritime choke points. As one 10th-century historian wrote: ‘One finds there the King of the Isles, who commands an empire without limit and has innumerable troops… No sovereign in the world draws so much profit from his land.’
In addition to a vast fortune made from maritime trade, Srivijaya had gold deposits along both the Musi and Batang Hari rivers of Sumatra, meaning its people were literally sitting on a goldmine.
Gold and silver coins from the empire were stamped with the flower of the sandalwood (of which it had a monopoly) and the word ‘glory’ in Sanskrit.
A handful of gold rings, beads and sandalwood gold coins (Pictured) of Srivijaya, fished up off the seabed in the River Musi, Palembang
Srivijaya linked China and the East with Persia and the West, with trade ties as far afield as the Buddhists of Bengal and the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East. Over the centuries, as its wealth and power grew, Srivijayan navigators, sailors and traders explored Borneo, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, the Bay of Bengal and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
The capital alone boasted 20,000 troops, 1,000 monks and 800 money-lenders, and its centuries-long empire afforded, for the time, a fantastically lavish way of life.
The kingdom’s Buddhist rulers wore bejewelled caps and drank wine made from fermented flowers, coconuts and honey.
Amid the grand temples and palaces were, said one writer, ‘parrots, white, red and yellow, which can be taught to speak Arabic, Persian, Greek and Hindi; there are also green and speckled peacocks, white falcons with a red crest’.
When a king died, his servant was compelled to leap to his death into a blazing fire to keep him company in the afterlife.
But eventually the golden age for the water kingdom of Srivijaya came to an end.
Piracy and raids by rival empires choked its maritime trade routes, including one by the Indian Chola empire which used the monsoon winds to sail in to Sumatra, raid 14 ports and ransack the capital.
By 1025, the Srivijaya kingdom had been swallowed by rival Indonesian empires, and by the 13th century it had simply ‘ceased to exist’, according to one historian.
Even in Indonesia itself it was forgotten, and rediscovered only in the 20th century, mainly by foreign academics. In 1920, French historian George Coedes found its name in ancient Chinese manuscripts and stone inscriptions.
Dr Kingsley says there are several theories as to why Srivijaya disappeared, and why so much gold is being found near Palembang.
‘Did Indonesia’s bubbling volcanoes sink the kingdom’s palaces, temples and dwellings into some ‘Asian Pompei’?’, he asked. ‘Or did the river swallow the city whole?’
With a fear of fire and a spiritual affinity with water, the Srivijayans may have thrown gold relics into the river as a religious offering, following the tradition of the king of throwing gold bricks in to the waters.
Today, in modern-day Indonesia, this ancient treasure is being lost to antiquities traders, according to Wreckwatch, which says no formal excavations of the site have taken place. Being sold on by the fishermen without proper excavation also means experts can not identify the objects and place them in historical context.
And so, the ancient civilisation of the Island of Gold is now at risk of disappearing once more — into the hands of shadowy, unscrupulous collectors around the globe.
‘[The treasures] are lost to the world’, said Dr Kingsley. ‘Vast swathes 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.’
It will take a big international effort to ensure that any of the wonders of Srijivaya survive — and that its dazzling jewels and treasures do not vanish all over again.