Shipwrecks are extremely important in the study of Southeast Asian ceramics because their very nature as ‘datable time capsules’ helps us date both the ceramics and the shipwrecks. And “pottery,” wrote the Smithsonian Magazine, “is a lingua franca of archaeology.”
Southeast Asian waters were busy waters, teeming with both regional traders as well as, after the 9th century (as the Belitung shipwreck testifies) some adventurous traders from distant lands. And of course by the early 1500s, they were joined by the Europeans—Portuguese, Spanish, then Dutch, English, American and others. As a result, as Roxanna M. Brown wrote over twenty years ago, “It is impossible to be precise about an actual number for the shipwrecks found to date in Southeast Asia. One problem is geographical limits. There are a number of Portuguese and Dutch wrecks in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa for instance, the remains of a Portuguese vessel in the Seychelles, and a few other European vessels may lie in the depths of Galle harbour in Sri Lanka. Many of them were en route from China and Southeast Asia to Europe and their cargoes include Southeast Asian goods. [There have also been shipwrecks along the Manila to Acapulco route, off the coast of China, and Hong Kong as well as along the coast of western Australia.] All these can be included in a list of Southeast Asia sites.” We hope this compact listing of those shipwrecks that have contributed to our knowledge of the ceramics of the region will prove helpful to both members of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society as well as those seeking more information on the history of the region.
For an excellent article on the history of shipwrecks in Southeast Asia, see this article written by one of our early members, Roxanna Brown: https://www.iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/02_brown_040to055.pdf. Many of our programmes feature shipwrecks, so consider joining the society to access an archive of our past recorded talks on shipwrecks. You can see the archive (but only members can access it) here.
For those interested in shipwrecks, take a look at a new magazine launched in 2020: Shipwrecks. Full of interesting articles, great photos, and with strong coverage of Southeast Asia. Online subscriptions are currently free. The link is here.
Please note that we have tried to follow the convention of using italics for the names of ships when their historic name is known, but regular text for those that are identified by names given them based on their location, cargo, founder, etc. Hence the Avondster, but the Bakau.