SHIPWRECKS OF SOUTHEAST ASIA & SHIPS CARRYING SOUTHEAST ASIAN GOODS
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. “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.
The Bakau wreck dates to the 15th century and is one of the earliest Chinese shipwrecks found in the region. She is believed to have departed from southern China, reloaded cargo at a Thai entrepôt port off the coast of Bakau, a small island between Sumatra and Borneo, on her way to Indonesia. Her cargo included ceramics from China, Thailand and Vietnam. For more information, click here.
The Batavia was a Dutch East Indiaman that sank in 1629 on its maiden voyage to the Indies in the Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago off the coast of Western Australia. It was discovered in 1963 and excavated in 1971 and 1980 by a team of archaeologists from the Western Australian Museum. It had set sail from Bantam to take over the cargo of a captured Portuguese ship and was loaded with 120 tons of pepper, sugar, and gum-bezoin, but no ceramics when it sank. For more information, click here. For a report on the ship’s timbers, click here.
A number of popular books were written about the wreck of the Batavia as its wreck and the struggles of its survivors is one of the great stories of shipwreck history Click here for a list of titles.
The Banda was a Dutch VOC ship that sank the evening of March 5/6, 1615 in the Indian Ocean near the island of Mauritius on her second homebound voyage; she had left Bantam (once the most important port in Java during the years of the spice trade 16-18C, located at the extreme northwest of the island) on December 27, 1614 bound for Holland. Her cargo (estimated at a value of 11,370 guilders) included cloves, nutmeg and export B&W porcelain from China (kraak) that is in the Guimet Museum in Paris. For more information, click here
Literally, ‘Black Rock’. See Belitung
The Belanakan was an Indonesian wreck discovered in 1999 by fishermen and heavily looted. Its estimated original cargo included ~40,000 ceramics (80% high-quality Sawankhalok, 18% B&W Vietnamese and 2% Chinese). The shipwreck and its cargo date to the Ming Jiājìng Era (1522-1566). Undocumented.
The Belitung (or Batu Hitam) was a 15.3-meter long Arab dhow that travelled from the Middle East to China (most likely the region where Oman is located as evidenced by the timber archaeological remains of the wreck, identified as Afezelia Africana, which is from that region), but foundered in Indonesian waters near Belitung island, 400 nautical miles southeast of Singapore. The wreck was discovered by an Indonesian sea-cucumber diver in 1998. A date on a ceramic bowl of 826 CE gives us a means of dating the contents of the ship together with a bronze mirror that can be dated to 759 CE.
More than 60,000 pieces of ceramics, precious metals and other cargo were recovered. The majority of ceramics were from the Changsha kilns (50,000+), in addition to smaller amounts of ceramics from Guangdong, plus Chaozhou, Xing, Yue, Gongxian, and earthenware in addition to gold vessels, a number of gilded silver boxes, a flask and ingots, bronze mirrors, bronze ware (including lead and copper coins), and diverse other wares. The collection gives “irrefutable archaeological evidence that there was direct trade between the western Indian Ocean and China during the latter part of the first millennium” (Michael Flecker). Professor John Miksic notes in The A to Z of Ancient Southeast Asia that “the Arab writer Suleiman, who visited Guangzhou in 851, noted that the city had a Muslim community. It was possibly from this port that this Arab ship sailed.” A selection of the artefacts plus a model of the ship is housed in the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. For more information, click here.
The Binh Thuan was an early 17th century Chinese junk (~1608) found by fishermen ~40 nautical miles off the coast of Binh Thuan Province, southern Vietnam in 2001. Her cargo included a significant number of cast-iron pans as well as a large number of Swatow ware intended for the Southeast Asian or Japanese market. (For a map of 16-17 Swatow kiln sites in China click here.) It was “the first full consignment of Zhangzhou porcelain ever found … comprised roughly of equal numbers of underglaze B&W and overglaze enamel decorated ware, mostly in the form of dishes, bowls, jarlets, and covered boxes …. Zhangzhou production was limited to the period between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries” [Michael Flecker, Symposium on the Chinese Export Ceramic Trade in SEA, 12-14 March, 2006]. Half of the 34,000 salvaged items were retained for museums in Vietnam, and half were auctioned in Melbourne by Christie’s in March 2004. For more information, click here.
The Brunei shipwreck was an accidental find by Elf Petroleum (Total) when carrying out a geophysical survey off the coast of Brunei in May 1997. The ship most likely sank ~1500 CE. Ninety percent of the 13,261 recovered artefacts were ceramics—predominantly export wares from China, as well as ceramics from Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. The remaining cargo consisted of various metals, beads, glass, etc. The collection is today held in the Brunei Shipwreck Museum. Notable ceramics included two ‘antique’ Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) pieces (a small B&W jar and a gourd-shaped ewer), and some Chinese firearms. For more information, click here and here.
The Ca Mau was a Chinese junk probably en route from Canton (present-day Guangzhou) to the Dutch trading port of Batavia ca. 1725. Vietnamese fishermen discovered her about 90 nautical miles south of Cap Ca Mau in southern Vietnam in 1998 under 36 meters of water. There had been early looting but the authority of the Binh Thuan province recovered 32,569 artefacts and 2.4 tons of metal objects from two fishermen (source: Nguyen Dinh Chien, the chief curator at Vietnam’s Museum of Vietnamese History, and a leading specialist on ceramics). In 1998 and 1999 more than 130,000 artefacts were recovered from the 450-square meter site. 33,978 artefacts, many ceramics, were dated to the Yongzheng reign (1723-1735). The ceramics were from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi, Dehua in Fujian, and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. 76,000 pieces were offered for sale by Sothebys in 2007. Nguyen Dinh Chien has published the results of this find in Tau Co Ca Mau (The Ca Mau shipwreck), 1723-1735. For more information, click here.
This 8-9C Southeast Asian shipwreck (found in the early 2000s) is said to be the earliest shipwreck found off the waters of Vietnam, and has been dated as a contemporary of the Belitung. However, the site was pillaged and thus ‘polluted’ with other shipwreck materials and the archaeological contexts not recorded. Artefacts found included Tang Dynasty ceramics (Changsha ceramics, sancai figurines) and strings of bronze copper coins (with 8-9C dates). Most of the finds are owned by a private collector in Binh Son District. For more information, click here.
The Cirebon/Nan-Han was a merchant ship found by Indonesian fishermen in February 2003 in the Java Sea and subsequently reported to an Indonesian salvage company, PT Paradigma Putera Sejahtera, who applied for survey and salvage. However, while efforts were being made to find private investors willing to split the net profits of a joint auction, the site was extensively looted. The ship was identified—on the basis of its dowel-holes, some with broken dowels—as of West-Austronesian type with the hull of the lashed-lug type. Her ceramics cargo numbering 495,671 pieces consisted mainly of Yue and Longquan stoneware from the kilns in Zhejiang Province from the late Tang, Five Dynasties and early Song, with one bearing a potter’s mark that translates to 968. The salvaged Chinese cash and ceramics firmly placed the finds in the 10th century with the diverse nature of the artefacts discovered originating from the Western Indian Ocean. “The Fatimid glassware from the Middle East, precious stones [14,000 pearls, 4,000 rubies, 400 dark red sapphires, and coral beads] probably from Indian Ocean ports, bronzes from India, Javanese polished bronze mirrors, Southeast Asian kendi and even an Islamic jewellery mould … [ found on the Nan-Han/ Cirebon Wreck] reflect the broad commercial links Southeast Asia enjoyed during this period” (Wade 2009: 239). Also found were several hundred kg of raw Afghani lapis lazuli, ingots of lead, tin and – supposedly– Indian wootz-iron, and a wide collection of aromatic substances of Arabian, Indian and Sumatran provenance, indicating that the vessels were bound for the Island of Java.” (Horst Liebner, “Cargoes for Java: Interpreting Two 10thCentury Shipwrecks”). A small selection of samples from the cargo are now archived at the Musée Royale de Mariemont in Morianwelz, Belgium.
The Diana was a British Indian merchant vessel owned by Palmer & Co. (a Calcutta agency house that had been licensed by the East India Company to carry freight between Canton and India). She sank in the Malacca Straits off the west coast of Malaysia on March 4, 1817. Part of her cargo of 24,000 porcelains, mainly Chinese B&W export ceramics, was probably meant to be off-loaded in India, with the remainder shipped on to England. Amongst the ceramics was an unusual collection of 887 pieces of ceramic statuary, perhaps enroute to the UK where decorative figures were then popular. The ship was salvaged by Dorian Ball of Malaysian Historical Salvors under license of the Malaysian government. The Malaysian National Museum still has some ceramics on exhibit; the remainder were auctioned by Christie’s in Amsterdam in 1995, bringing in US$3.2 million.
This Chinese ship, salvaged by Sten Sjøstrand, sank off the west coast of Malaysia in the 1840s near the town of Desaru, hence her name. The cargo of Qing Dynasty Chinese ceramics was particularly well preserved as the cargo was stacked in Chinese-style separate, lateral wooden compartments. Chinese B&W ceramics from both Jingdezhen and Dehua, plus Yixing teapots from Jiangxi Province and Guangdong stoneware dominated the cargo, which also included a surprising number (50,000+) of soup spoons, showing the ceramics’ Asian cuisine orientation. The Yixing teapots are of special note as each held a mark giving a potter’s or a supervisor’s name. Selections from the wreck can be seen in Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and on Desaru‘s dedicated website.
The Esmeralda’s fame lies in the fact that she may have been one of Vasco da Gama’s ships as she is one of the earliest known wrecks of a European ship from the Age of Discovery. Although located in 1998 off the coast of Oman, the secret was kept until 2016. “The Esmeralda was torn from its anchorage close to an offshore island by a storm and hurled against the rocks [and was identified by having the] name of its captain, Vicente Sodré, commemorated in the inscription ‘VS’ carved on to the stone shot kept on board for use in battle; Sodré was da Gama’s uncle” (D. Abulafia, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans, London: Penguin, 2020, p. 544). She sank along with her sister ship, the São Pedro. One coin found onboard is one of only two known examples (a silver indio of King Manual I) minted for trade in the Indies. The 1,039 ceramic shards recovered include wares made in Portugal (52%) but also some Asian wares including Ming Hóngzhì (1488-1505) porcelain celadon plates and Martaban ware. For more information see “A Portuguese East Indiaman from D. L. Mearns, et. al., “The 1502-1503 Fleet of Vasco da Gama off Al Hallaniyah Island”, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol. 45 (2016), pp. 331-351.
No parts of this ship were found, only fragments of wood, in a site ~166 km south of Puerto Princesa, Española, southeast Palawan, Philippines, which gave this site its name. Only 62 artefacts were recovered dated to the 15-16th Century, the majority being large, heavy Thai (Sawankhalok) stoneware jars, with only seven B&W porcelains, which has caused the speculation that the site was not a shipwreck but perhaps jettisoned cargo.
The Portuguese Espadarte sank off Mozambique in 1558 with over 1,000 pieces of B&W Jiājìng Era (1522-1566) porcelains and notably, 17 overglaze enamelled wares. A dated bowl ‘made in the Gui Chou Year’  helped date the wreck. Experts noted that the quality of its cargo of exported Jingdezhen wares was notably better than earlier shipments remarking that it may have been the 1557 establishment of a Portuguese station in Macau that enabled them to source finer Chinese ceramics than previously.
Flying Fish Wreck
The cargo of the Flying Fish Wreck, dating to the N. Song (960-1127) found off the coast of Borneo, consisted of brown-painted ware, qingbai, black ware, green ware, and brown ware, and had at least one Yaozhou bowl recovered by the scientific team. The name of the wreck was derived “from the freely painted decoration in the centre of one of the first finds, a large stoneware basin. The graceful gliding flying fish design is known from the Cizhao kilns of Fujian Province, China, but it [had] never been seen in a shipwreck before.” The article on the wreck written by Michael Flecker and Tai Yew Seng (formerly of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, NUS) meticulously describes the various ceramic and non-ceramic finds. You can download it here or find it on Academia at: https://www.academia.edu/40134696/The_Flying_Fish_Wreck. For more information on this wreck as well as the Lingga and Pulau Buaya wrecks, click here.
Better known as the Dutch ship carrying the ‘Nanking Cargo’ that sank in 1752 off Bintan Island due to a ‘navigational error’ on its way from Canton to Amsterdam via the Sunda Strait. Discovered, salvaged, and the cargo put up for sale by Michael Hatcher in just over one year. Her cargo of 150,000 pieces of high-quality Qing ceramics (Qiánlóng Period, 1736-1795) was auctioned off by Christie’s Amsterdam in 1986 in 4,918 lots. The cargo represents the types of ceramic wares that the VOC traded in large quantities to Holland, especially after setting up a factory in Canton in 1729. It is also known for its 125 shoe-shaped gold bars (107 rectangular and 18 shoe-shaped). See Christiaan J. A. Jörg, The Geldermalsen History and Porcelain (Gröningen, Netherlands: Kemper Publisher, 1986). For more information, click here as well as here.
The Griffin was an English East India ship that sank in the Sulu Seas, southern Philippines off the coast of Mindañao on 20 January 1761. She was one of only five UEIC ships lost in the 18th century, carrying a cargo of Chinese merchandise for the European market (mainly chests of tea but also 7500 pieces of Chinese B&W porcelain made in Jingdezhen). A sample pair of tea cups can be seen in the Denver Art Museum here. The story of the wreck and its cargo has been told by Frank Goddio and Evelyn Jay in 18th Century Relics of the Griffin Shipwreck (Manila: Manila Worldwide First, 1998).
This Chinese junk was named after Captain Michael Hatcher, its salvager in 1983. It sank in the South China Sea with 25,000 pieces of porcelain ceramics including kraak kendis, pear-shaped bottles, some boxes, and a large number of very high quality ‘Transitional Wares’ (mainly B&W porcelain made during the difficult transitional period of the mid-1700s in Chinese history from ~1620-1683). Two pieces that bore the date of 1643 led scholars to date the cargo to ~1640-45 or at the very end of the Ming Dynasty when, as mentioned above, the kilns at Jingdezhen were under great stress and later came to a halt 1645-50.
The Hoi An wreck foundered off the town of Hoi An, Vietnam, en route to Indonesia, hence its name. She was described as a vessel of the ‘South China Sea tradition’. The majority of the ceramics, which numbered ~200,000 came from the Chu Dau kilns of northern Vietnam, and were dated to the mid-to late 15th Century. They were auctioned by Butterfields in San Francisco. There were a few miscellaneous other wares from the Binh Dinh kilns of central Vietnam and what was identified as perhaps “Guangdong blue and white ware.” For more information see John Guy “Vietnamese Ceramics from the Hoi An Excavation: The Cu Lao Cham Ship Cargo” in Orientations, (September 2000), as well as here.
The ‘Magnificent China Reef Wreck #1’ was discovered in 1996 only three metres below the water’s surface near the Huaguang Reef off the coast of the Paracel (Xisha) Islands in the South China Sea, and as a result had been heavily looted (including the use of explosives) by the time she was excavated in 2007. She was a 20-metre long Chinese merchant ship built during the S. Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Nevertheless, the National Museum of China and the Hainan Provincial Administration of Culture, Radio & Television, Publishing and Sport extracted more than 10,000 pottery and porcelain pieces from the site, including some Jingdezhen B&W, ‘shadowy’ blue porcelains , and celadons. Artefacts from the site can be seen in the South China Sea Museum in Boao Town, Qionghai City, Hainan Island, China.
The Intan wreck is one of the oldest wrecks recovered to date (10C). It was found by Indonesian fishermen in 1997 about 40 nautical miles off the eastern coast of Sumatra in the Bangka Strait, along an ancient trade route from Sumatra to Java. Carbon dating confirmed a 10th century date. In addition to Chinese ceramics, its cargo held what marine archaeologist Michael Flecker described as a “vast diversity” of artefacts including 8,000 ceramics (of which ~50% were small brown-ware pots from Guangdong and Fujian), plus white-glazed jarlets and dishes, greenware bowls and covered boxes; as well as Thai fine pasteware bottles and kendis, Middle Eastern glass, Javanese-style gold jewellery, organics, and diverse metal items including dozens of Chinese coins minted 918 CE or shortly thereafter. Flecker wrote that “the Chinese cargo was transhipped at an entrepôt port in Sumatra, probably at or near Palembang, the seat of the Srivijaya empire”. Ceramics from the Intan can be seen in Jakarta’s Museum Seni Rupa dan Keramik [The Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics].
Jade Dragon Wreck
This was a Southeast Asian trading vessel lost off the northern tip of Borneo carrying a cargo of Chinese 13th Century longquan ceramics. She was discovered by fishermen divers in 2010. Marine archaeologist Michael Flecker was the salvager. See his article, “The Jade Dragon Wreck: Sabah, East Malaysia”, The Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 98, number 1, Feb 2012.
Java Sea Wreck
The Java Sea Wreck was a Southeast Asian trading vessel of Austronesian lashed-lug construction found by fishermen in the Java Sea off the coast of Sumatra. Unfortunately, it was heavily looted by local divers before being commercially salvaged in 1996 by Pacific Sea Resources. The cargo consisted of Chinese iron and 30 tons of ceramics including fine B&W qingbai porcelain and kendis from Thailand in addition to some luxury items (elephant tusks and resin). The ship was originally dated from the mid to late 13thcentury (by radiocarbon analysis) but later tests suggested that the ship could be dated “as early as 1162 CE”. Objects from the wreck were donated to the Chicago Field Museum by Pacific Sea Resources for study and analysis. The Indonesian government sold their share of the salvaged artefacts. See Michael Flecker’s article, “The Thirteenth-Century Java Sea Wreck: A Chinese Cargo in an Indonesian Ship”, The Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 80, 2003, issue 4, as well as: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/silk-road-themes/underwater-heritage/java-sea-wreck and https://www.newmandala.org/java-sea-wreck-new-research-ancient-ship/
In 2007, fishermen found a small overgrown jarlet hooked onto a net that they had cast into the Java Sea. They reported their find to friends ashore, who in turn contacted an Indonesian salvage company, PT Nautik Recovery Asia. Subsequent dives on the site revealed a mound of ceramics covered with mud and sand in 55m depth. The location and cargo of the wreck indicated that the vessel was most probably bound for the Island of Java. The first coins and ceramics surfaced placed the find into the 10th Century CE.
In addition to the diverse trade ware ceramics found, a number of ingots and concreted metal implements (including the first tripod feet!) were recovered – and the very first ‘exotica’, fragments of perfume flacons, finely decorated Chinese mirrors, brilliantly worked crystal beads, paraphernalia of ivory and horn. Clearly, this find will be ‘worth’ more than the artefacts’ mere collector’s value: It is a unique insight into Java’s 10th Century economy and culture. To read Horst Liebner’s full report, click here.
The Ko Khram was a 15th Century hybrid South China Sea ship discovered by fishermen in the Gulf of Thailand carrying a mixture of 5,000 trade ceramics from southern China (monochromes), northern Vietnam (B&W), Champa green-glazed saucers and various wares from three production centres in Thailand (primarily Sawankhalok celadon, some Sukhothai underglaze black plates, and some Singburi storage jars). The lack of Chinese B&W thus “representing a time in the fifteenth century when [Chinese] blue-and-white was not exported to Southeast Asia (Roxanna M. Brown, The Ming Gap),” e.g. supporting her discovery of a ‘Ming [export ceramics] Gap’. Some ceramics from the wreck can be seen in the Maritime Museum in Chanthaburi, Thailand.
Ko Si Chang III
This South China Sea vessel, dated to 1460-1487, was excavated in 1986 by the Thai-Australian Underwater Archaeological Research Project. 300 whole ceramics were recovered including 7 Vietnamese B&W, 5 Chinese B&W, 1 brown-glazed Champa cup, 1 Sukhothai bowl, but no Sawankhalok. Also found were 29 unglazed kendi, 83 earthenware pots, 142 earthenware lids, 18 Singburi storage jars, and 25 miscellaneous. The current location of the salvaged ceramics is unknown.
The Lena Shoal was a Chinese junk or South China Sea ship that was shipwrecked on a reef, sinking off Busuanga Island, northwest Palawan, in the Philippines ~1490. It carried valuable cargo mainly from China with some pieces from Thailand and Vietnam, some of which would have been destined for the distant ports of Hormuz and Aden, while some would have been bartered for exotic products in the Muslim sultanates of the Philippines, Borneo and the Moluccas. (source: Gabriel Casal, Director, National Museum of the Philippines). Her cargo was found at a depth of 48-50 meters below the surface in 1996 by local fishermen who looted it extensively, with many artefacts sold on the black market. The salvagers found B&W Chinese porcelain, qinghua, monochrome porcelains (Hóngzhì Era 1488-1505), fahua porcelains, celadon-glazed stoneware, green-glazed longquan stoneware, Thai Sawankhalok stoneware and jars, Burmese jars, lacquerware, metal wares such as copper vessels and bronze gongs, glass beads and some Chinese firearms. It was salvaged by Frank Goddio, Director of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology, in 1997 in cooperation with the National Museum of the Philippines.
The Lingga wreck was an early 12th Century Southeast Asian ship with a Chinese cargo. She was of Southeast Asian lashed-lug ship construction carrying iron and Guangdong ceramics. A precise date of loss was set within the last few years of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), along with the likely port of embarkation and intended destination. For an abstract of the final report, click here. Download the full report by Michael Flecker here. For more information on this wreck (as well as the Pulau Buaya and Flying Fish Wreck, click here.
The Longquan (over 30 metres in length, so one of the largest wooden wrecks found in the South China Sea) foundered 23 nautical miles off the west coast of Malaysia in 63 meters of water in June 1996. She was dated to c~1400 (or 1380s), built in the “South China Sea tradition that might be related to overseas Chinese business interests” (Roxanna Brown, Ming Gap, p. 42). Samples showed a fully loaded ship with ~40% of the cargo Chinese (white-glazed porcellaneous bowls from southern China plus Longquan celadon; but no Chinese B&W) and Thai: 20% Si Satchanalai celadon and 20% classic Sukhothai underglaze iron oxide decorated with a single fish or a floral spray, plus some Suphanburi storage jars. No Vietnamese wares were discovered. For more information, click here.
The Mauritius was a VOC [Dutch] ship wrecked off Cape Lopez in the Gulf of Guinea near Gabon, on the west coast of Africa in 1609. The French team that salvaged the wreck in 1985 found a large number of B&W shards, mainly export Chinese kraak (approximately 165 of the ~215 pieces of ceramics), believed to be either from the cargo of the San Antonio, a Portuguese carrack captured by the Dutch in 1605, or “a private purchase or a private order.” Also found were 7 pieces of Zhangzhou ware and some typical Chinese-style stem cups. For more information click here, here, and here.
Nan'ao No. 1
The Nan’ao No. 1 shipwreck was discovered in 2007 near Nan’ao Island off the coast of Guangdong, China. She was a Chinese merchant ship 27 metres long with her hull divided into separate compartments holding 20,000 pieces of ceramics as well as some bulk copper and iron ware, and other trade goods. Her discovery was lauded as one of 2010’s ‘Great Ten National Archaeological Finds of China’. The ceramics were primarily late Ming (Wànlì Era 1583-1619), B&W porcelains, many with dragon designs destined perhaps for Macau or Batavia to be shipped on to other markets in Southeast Asia and Europe. Compositional analysis of 11 pieces indicated that the B&W export porcelains came from two separate kilns: Jingdezhen and Zhangzhou. A special Nan’ao Shipwreck Museum was constructed. Download the pdf of its story here.
Nanhai I was a Chinese merchant ship that sank in the South China Sea during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). She was found in 1987 “when the Maritime Exploration and Recovery Ltd. company of the UK worked with China on the 1772 Rimsberg shipwreck of the Dutch East India Company… In 2007, the salvage team built a massive steel cage around the shipwreck [raising it] and the surrounding silt … and moved all to a new purpose-built museum in Yangjiang…. About 21,000 pieces/sets of objects and 2,600 less complete specimens have been found to date … most of these are ceramics, but there are also hundreds of gold and silver objects…. Among the ceramics found are qingbai (bluish white) glazed porcelain from Jingdezhen, greenwares from Longquan…and ceramics of various glaze colours from kilns in Fujian province, such as Dehua and Cizhao” (Baoping Li, “The Nanhai I” in The Oriental Society Newsletter, 2018, pp 11-12). For more information on how the discovery of this shipwreck stimulated the development of marine archaeology in China, click here.
The Nanyang was a hybrid ship combining Southeast Asian hardwood and construction techniques with Chinese ones. She was discovered in October 1995 off peninsular Malaysia (10 nautical miles from Tioman Island), and as a result of her cargo, which consisted almost entirely of Thai Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai celadons (10,000-15,000 pieces), plus 20 Sukhothai plates, and some large Suphanburi storage jars similar to those found on the Longquan, dated to ~1380. No Chinese B&W wares were found. Its importance lies in its being the earliest shipwreck found with Si Satchanalai celadon plates, helping date the production period of these wares. Note: the Nanyang, Longquan & Royal Nanhai confirm that the Si Satchanalai kilns (Thai) were producing celadons by the 1400s.
The Nassau was a Dutch VOC ship that sank in battle off the coast of Malaysia by Port Dickson in 1606. She was not carrying a mercantile cargo, but the wreck is historically important as it sank after a battle with the Portuguese in its (failed) attempt to take Malacca in 1606. The Dutch finally succeeded in taking Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641.
Nossa Señora da Luz
The Nossa Señora da Luz (‘Our Lady of the Light’) was a Portuguese carrack that sank off Faial Island in the Azores on November 7, 1615 on its return voyage from Goa loaded with textiles, spices and other goods. [Not to be confused with an unrelated Portuguese ship named the Nuestra Señora de la Luz that sank in 1752 off Montevideo, Uruguay.]
Nuestra Señora de la Concepción
At 150 feet in length, this 120-ton Spanish galleon was the largest ship of her day and formed part of the lucrative Manila-Acapulco galleon trade until wrecked off the southern coast of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands on 20 September 1638. It left Manila in August 1638 with 400 passengers on board, fully loaded with a large variety of Asian goods that had been acquired in Manila. The 1987 salvage by Pacific Sea Resources yielded priceless pieces of gold, plus some jars and ~10 kg of B&W shards, of which approximately half were kraak, (but no ‘Transitional Wares’). The salvager, William Mathers reported on the salvage operation in the September 1990 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The ship was famous for once having been captured by Sir Francis Drake in 1579. For a detailed study of the ceramics, see “The Ceramic Cargo of the Concepción” by Maura Rinaldi in Pacific Sea Resources.
Nuestra Señora de la Limpia y Pura Concepción
This Spanish ship sank on its return home in 1641 from Veracruz to Spain. Its cargo was partially recovered in 1687, but the location kept secret and eventually forgotten. In 1978 a treasure hunter rediscovered the ship. The “few poor-quality kraak porcelain” pieces that were found are in the Museo Casas Reales in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Nuestra Señora de la Vida
An outbound Manilla galleon that foundered in 1620 off the Isla Verde (Mindoro Island), Philippines after hitting a reef. The site was excavated in December 1985 with “several hundred fragments of Chinese blue and white scattered over a large area …. Only thirty intact pieces were recovered…. [It was] considered significant as it was the first time that a keel and some fixtures belonging to a Spanish galleon had been found” (Sheldon Jago-on & Bobby Orillaneda, Archaeological Researches on the Manila Galleon Wrecks in the Philippines, ISBN 978-981-32-9248-2_7).
Nossa Señora dos Mártires
The Nossa Señora dos Mártires was a Portuguese Indiaman’ that sank on its home journey to Portugal at the mouth of the Tagus River near Lisbon in a storm in September 1606, following a nine-month voyage from Cochin. She is also popularly known as the ‘Pepper Wreck’. The shipwreck was excavated from 1996 to 2001. “A stack of seven porcelain dishes still with a layer of straw in between each and an iron gun that accreted the shards missing from a large porcelain platter fragment found nearby, were among many finds, including pewter plates, green and yellow Chinese glazed earthenware, Martaban stoneware, lead shot and cannonballs.” But the most important shard was a piece of B&W porcelain showing a pomegranate, which kraak expert Maura Rinaldi used to date kraak with a pomegranate border (her Border III type) to roughly 1590-1610), showing what a difference a shard can make.
The Pandanan was a Chinese junk (remnants of iron nails were found) that sank off the southernmost tip of the mainland of Palawan, Philippines, discovered by a pearl diver in search of a missing pearl basket in 1993. She is dated to the mid to late-15th Century (1460-1500), and was believed to be originally carrying a cargo of ~20,000 ceramics. Only 4,722 artefacts were recovered, including metalwares and beads as well as ceramics. Of the ceramics, some ~30-60 were Chinese and ~80 Vietnamese B&W, the bulk being from Champa (~75% of the total ceramics) from central Vietnam (Binh Dinh Province), and a sole piece of Burmese celadon. Notable ceramics included four Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) ‘antique’ pieces. It was suggested that some of the B&W bore possible Islamic design elements. Also found on board were some of the earliest known Chinese firearms. For an article on the earthenware ceramics found onboard click here. For an extensive article on maritime archaeology in 15C Southeast Asia, click here.
This is the oldest known vessel found to date in Southeast Asia, found in an eroding riverbank in the Pontian River, Malaysia, hence its name. It was dated to the 3-5th Centuries CE by radiocarbon testing and the few ceramics found on board “similar to those found at the site of Oc-eo in southern Vietnam, broadly dated to the 1st-6th Centuries”(Roxanna Brown & Sten Sjøstrand, Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia, 2004, p.41).
Found in the Gulf of Thailand and “visited by a Thai-Danish team in 1997” but with little published data. The wreck dates to ~1470-1487 and once held approx. 4,000-5,000 pieces of ceramics including Sawankhalok and Vietnamese. “Only nine ceramics thought to be from the site, which were seen in private collections, have been published” (Roxanna Brown, Ming Gap, p. 43). No Chinese B&W to our knowledge.
A wreck in Indonesian waters, located by fishermen off the coast of Pulau Buaya in the Riau Archipelago, dated to the ~11-12th Centuries. Its cargo consisted of 32,000+ Chinese stoneware ceramics, the majority qingbai and celadons, with smaller amounts of fine-paste SEA earthenware plus the usual metal ware, ingots, bronze gongs, etc. “Almost all the dishes and bowls were from Guangdong and South Fujian kilns, with a very small number of the qingbai-type bowls possibly from Jingdezhen” (Abu Ridho and E. Edwards McKinnon, The Pulau Buaya Wreck: Finds from the Song Period, Jakarta, 1992). Due to the absence of longquan onboard, it was suggested that the wreck could not have been dated much later than the beginning of the S. Song. Also found were fine-paste kendis and coarse earthenware pots (the latter possibly belonging to the crew). For more information on this wreck (as well as the Lingga and Flying Fish Wreck, click here.
Of southern Chinese construction dated to the 13thCentury found off the coast of China in an area of mud flats near the city of Quanzhou in Fujian Province, she carried mainly organic products from Southeast Asia: incense, pepper, ambergris, frankincense, mercury, etc. No ceramics, but it helps our understanding of the trade patterns between China and Southeast Asia during this period.
This was a China-built ship found in the Gulf of Thailand that became known as the ‘coin wreck’ for its 200+ kg of coins found onboard dating from the 14th Century through to the Hóngwǔ reign (1368-1398). However, the ship is dated to ~1500. 264 ceramics were recovered, ~50% Thai earthenware with another 28% Vietnamese transitional ceramics and 10% Chinese, half of which were storage jars. “Otherwise there are only ten Suphanburi storage jars, nine Sawankhalok vessels, and one plate from the northern Thai San Kamphaeng kilns” (Roxanna Brown, Ming Gap, p. 38).
Discovered by Sten Sjøstrand in 1995 off the coast of Kuantan, Malaysia with its cargo almost entirely intact (due to the deep water it was found in). The ship is believed to have departed from Ayutthaya enroute to either Sumatra or Java. 21,000+ pieces of mature Si Satchanalai/Sawankhalok celadon (but no Sukhothai), “dating Sawankhalok celadon to the 15th Century and not later” (Roxanna Brown, Ming Gap, p. 46). Hidden in a secret compartment next to the keel were some valuables, including one Chinese celadon bowl, two Vietnamese B&W covered boxes, and five Chinese B&W bowls “similar to others which have been dated to the Jingtai/Tianshun years of the Interregnum period, 1436-1464).” Radiocarbon tests on her timbers gave a date of ~1320-1460. For more information, click here.
A Dutch East India Company ship that was abandoned after it sprang a leak, ending up in Malaysian waters near Mersing in 1727. She was discovered in 1984 holding only two storage jars, a single tin ingot and two elephant tusks (supplemented later by the various artefacts stolen off the wreck confiscated from illegal divers –90 tusks and 100 tin ingots). The storage jars onboard helped date the Thai Maenam Noi kilns of central Thailand, active from the 15th to early 18th Century. For more information, click here.
The Spanish galleon San Diego was formerly part of the famous Spanish Galleon Trade between the Philippines and Acapulco, but was later converted into a warship. Overloaded and with an inexperienced captain (Lt. General Antonio de Morga), it sank near Fortune Island in Nasugbu, Batangas in the Philippines after a battle with the Dutch flagship Mauritius on 14 December 1600 (during the Wànlì reign). It represents the earliest recovered remains of a European vessel in Southeast Asia. Its 1992-1993 salvage recovered more than 35,000 objects including 800+ jars (some from Burma) and 5,000+ Chinese B&W ceramics. Significantly, two Zhangzhou enamelled ceramics (an oblong box and a bowl) have led experts to believe that Zhangzhou production started only in the late 16th Century. The 2nd floor gallery, ‘The Treasures of San Diego’ in Manila’s National Museum of Anthropology displays many of the ceramics (and other artefacts) from the wreck.
The Santa Cruz, built in the South China Sea tradition, was discovered off the waters of Santa Cruz, northwest Zambales, North Luzon, Philippines. “From the results of the origin and placement of the cargo, it was suggested that the Santa Cruz could have originated in Thailand, which is further supported by both the shipbuilding construction technique that developed in the area during this period” (Flecker 2005). The archaeological excavations retrieved almost “15,000 artefacts that were predominantly high-fired, glazed stoneware and porcelain ceramics from China (86%), Thailand (9%), Vietnam (0.37%) and Burma & others (0.96%). Other items included iron cauldrons and ingots, bronze weaponry and gongs, earthenware, tin ingots, glass beads and bracelets, carnelian beads, and wood and stone implements and other organic materials” (Bobby C. Orillaneda, “Maritime Trade in the Philippines during the 15th Century” 2008), which can be accessed here. Notable ceramics included a crescent-shaped kendi now in the National Museum of the Philippines, together with other ceramics from the shipwreck. For an article on the “Blues of Santa Cruz: A study of porcelain color and composition” click here.
The Santa Margarita was an over-loaded Manila galleon that was wrecked in the Philippines in 1522 near the island of Rota. Its demise is also one of those horrific tales of its period when 300 people who survived unendurable conditions ended up in a sinking ship to be captured and killed by the indigenous inhabitants, the Chamorro. In 2000, a chipped Ming Dynasty bowl was recovered from the wreck, whereas before, only thousands of shards had been recovered. The piece was a B&W export porcelain bowl (kraak), with the foliate rim divided into 8 panels and the central motif of a deer. For more details, click here.
The Portuguese nao (a three- or four-masted ocean-going sailing ship that was developed in the 14th to 15th centuries in Europe, also known as a carrack), the Sāo Bento, was lost at the mouth of the Msikaba River, South Africa on her return home from Cochin in April 1554 during a violent storm. Her cargo was pepper, together with the usual cargo brought from Asia to Portugal. The site was discovered in 1968. John Ayers of the V&A dated the recovered porcelain to ~1530-1560, consisting of “commonplace dishes and bowls in large numbers…. While most of the porcelain pieces contained the ‘emperor marks’ of Xuāndé, the motifs … did not fit the designs of the period” and were apparently later pieces…. The inclusion of “a single piece containing the mark of ‘Jiājìng’ (1522-1566) … places the porcelain assembly after 1522 at the earliest.” Coarser ceramics were also found, with the most popular central motif being the mythical beast, a qilin. For more detailed information about the ceramic cargo, click here.
She was built in Lisbon in 1550, and sank in 1552 near Port Edward in South Africa on her return voyage to Portugal after departing Cochin on 3 February 1552 loaded with pepper, drugs, spices, wood, a substantial quantity of Chinese porcelain, 200 Portuguese and 300 slaves (8 Portuguese and 17 slaves were eventually rescued by a sailing Portuguese ivory merchant). Among the porcelain sherds used to date the shipwreck the Taoist trigram motif proved invaluable, due to the heavy influence Taoism held during the reign of the emperor Jiājìng (1522-1566). Of even greater interest were fragments containing inscriptions relating to ‘long life’, ‘riches and honor’ depicted within the image of a coin; another inscription contained the character ‘Fu'(福) …. The principal porcelain sherds found among the collection are two sherds containing inscriptions of the name of Emperor Jiājìng, firmly dating the sherds to a period between 1522 and 1566, as these are the only emperor reign-marks found in the collection. A shard from a large jar with 4 lugs was also found, in addition to what appears to be (unclear) some Swatow wares.” For a map of 16-17C Swatow kiln sites in China, click here. For more information, click here.
The Sāo Gonçalo was a small Portuguese nau (a three- or four-masted ocean-going sailing ship that was developed in the 14th to 15th centuries in Europe, also known as a carrack) returning home that sank in 1630 in Plettenberg Bay near the Cape of Good Hope while at anchor. The ~1000 B&W porcelain kraak shards that were found near the shore where the ship floundered are believed to have been part of the ship’s cargo.
Wrecked ~1325 off the coast of Korea and discovered in 1976. The Sinan was a Chinese merchant vessel (likely constructed in the area of Fuzhou, China) that departed from Ningbo of Zhejiang Province bound for the port of Hakata, Japan. Enroute, the ship sank. Her cargo provides invaluable materials for the contemporaneous trade relationship that existed between Korea, China and Japan during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Her cargo included over 180,000 Chinese ceramics (Longquan greenware, Yingqing/Qingbai, Shufu and white ware of Jingdezhen, black glazed ware of Jizhou (temmoku), 79 pieces of Jun ware, Jian and black-glazed Cizhou ware), with only three Korean pieces, and a large shipment of Chinese coins. The bulk of the ceramic cargo was Longquan greenware, Yingqing, Shufu, and white porcelains from Jingdezhen but not a single piece of Chinese blue-and-white. The Sinan Shipwreck Collection is displayed at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.
“The Sinan wreck offered compelling evidence that the export of Chinese blue-and-white from Jingdezhen did not begin until after about AD 1323” (Roxanna Brown, Ming Gap, p. 33). For more information see the “Sinan Shipwreck Collection” of the catalog published by the National Museum of Korea, pp. 286-293, as well as: “A Study on the Departure Port of the Sinan Shipwreck – A Perspective Based on the Chinese Ceramic Cargo” by Jianan Fan and Haichao Li, Archaeolgical Research in Asia, Volume 23, Sept 2020. See also SEACS Chinese Translations No. 2 (March 1980) here.
The Singtai was discovered 12 nautical miles from the island of Pulau Redang off the northeast coast of Malaysia in April 2001. The discovery of wooden dowels identified the ship as being of the South China Sea type. The main cargo was large storage jars from the Maenam Noi kilns of Singburi, Thailand, plus some Si Satchanalai underglaze covered boxes and Sukhothai underglaze bowls (but no fish plates). The ship is dated to +/- 1550 so may show that the Sukhothai kilns were still operating into the 16th Century.
Discovered off the coast of Sabah with N. Song Chinese ceramics, made it one of the oldest shipwrecks found in Malaysia. Unfortunately, marine archaeologist Sten Sjøstrand noted it was heavily looted so only 303 ceramic artefacts were found along with 250 kg of shards. For more information, the dedicated report can be downloaded here.
The large three-masted Chinese ship True Star (or Tek Sing) was loaded with silk and porcelain when it set off from Amoy (China) on January 14 destined for Batavia, when it sank off the Belvidere Shoals on February 5, 1822. It caused an enormous loss of 1600 lives, as she was carrying Chinese immigrants hoping to find work in the sugar plantations of Java, and thus earned the nickname, the ‘Titanic of the East’. The shipwreck was found and salvaged by Michael Hatcher in 1999. It held one of the largest cargos (~350,000 pieces including Chinese porcelain dating from the 15th-19thCentury as well as cannons, watches, mortar and pestles, and coral-encrusted storage jars) ever found, eventually auctioned in November 2000 in Stuttgart, Germany by Nagel Auctions.
The Turiang was a China-built vessel, most likely headed south from Thailand, towards Borneo and/or Sulawesi when wrecked in the early 14th Century (c. 1305-1370). She was discovered in May 1998 and excavated by Sten Sjøstrand who estimated that ~30% of the original cargo was missing (it was found in an area of heavy-fishing). Her commercial cargo included about 1200 ceramics: 35% from China (celadons, large storage pots from southern China), 8% Vietnam and 57% Thailand—BUT no B&W ware, neither from China nor Vietnam (suggesting an early date since the export of B&W ceramics from China is first dated to 1328).
It is one of the earliest shipwrecks discovered with Thai export ceramics (ring-handled jars from Sukhothai, stacks of the famous Sukhothai fish plates, and Si Satchanalai …). It also proves that almost-identical black underglaze ware was available simultaneously from Sukhothai and Vietnam, showing its popularity before Chinese B&W. Representative ceramics can be seen at the National Museum (KL, Malaysia) and the Pacific Asia Museum (Pasadena, CA, USA). Click here to download the article by Sten Sjøstrand and Claire Barnes on the Turiang that appeared in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2001, Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 71-109 (with permission of SS); and here for an article that focuses on the ceramic finds, by SS, edited by Dr. Geoff Wade.
Vung Tao [Dau]
A Chinese-Portuguese lorcha combining Chinese and European construction techniques, dated to ~1690 (reign of the Emperor Kangxi) that caught fire and sank ~100 miles off the southern Vietnam coast by the town of Vung Tao, most likely enroute for Batavia. The cargo included 17C Europe-destined B&W export ware (with 28 distinct underglaze blue base marks) as well as white wares and more provincial pieces, the former probably destined to be re-shipped to Holland and Islamic markets, and the latter for local communities and Southeast Asian markets. For more information, click here.
The Wanjiao One (碗礁一), also known as the Bowl Reef shipwreck (as that is what the local fishermen called the area due to the number of bowls they found in their nets) was a Chinese merchant ship, most likely a coastal trader. She was found off the coast of Pingtan County, Fujian Province, China—the first wreck to be found in the area—in June 2005. Amongst her cargo of 17,000 pieces of porcelain were not only ordinary everyday wares (bowls, cups and vases), but also 10,000 pieces of B&W Qing Dynasty (Kangxi Era 1654-1722) porcelain.
A Portuguese ship known to lie off the east coast of Malaysia, but it took marine archaeologist Sten Sjøstrand six years to find the actual location of the wreck. When the ship was discovered to be carrying Ming ceramics from Jingdezhen during the reign of the Emperor Wànlì (1573-1619), the shipwreck acquired a name. The Wànlì wreck itself is dated to 1625, and sank as the result of a battle with a rival vessel, believed to be Dutch. Since the stern was blown off the ship and more than 9,000 kg of ceramic shards were found, it is believed that an explosion (perhaps in the ammunition store) was the event that eventually sank the ship. The story of the Wànlì is recorded in The Wànlì Shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo by Sten Sjøstrand and Sharipah Lok Lok bt. Syed Idrus (2007). “According to Chen Huasha, a research director at the Palace Museum, it was the first time a Chitan figure has been seen on Chinese blue and white porcelain. Also found was a scene depicting a woman wearing an ethnic Han costume, thought to be the image of Wang Zhaojun, one of the Four Beauties in Chinese History. Numerous other examples have since been found with fascinating mixtures of Chinese history intermingled with designs from Europe including flowers and plant life found along the coast of the Mediterranean Ocean.”
The Witte Leeuw was a VOC Indiaman that was wrecked on its return home from Bantam in West Java to the Netherlands in June 1613 after a battle with two Portuguese carracks near the island of St. Helena in the southern Atlantic. It was the first salvaged VOC shipwreck found to be carrying a substantial amount of porcelain. The ship was salvaged in 1978, yielding ~200-399 kg of ceramic shards, mainly export B&W porcelain (kraak) with only 290 complete pieces, as well as some jars similar to those found on the Concepción. These finds were acquired by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which published a catalogue (The Ceramic Load of the ‘Witte Leeuw’ 1613) in 1982). Some finds may also been seen in the island’s museum located in Lower Jamestown.
This shipwreck was found off the coast of Malaysia in April 1966 with six of the 400 Chinese ceramics onboard bearing the Xuāndé reign mark (1426-35) on their base, hence the name, although it is now believed that they are later Ming copies. The Thai ceramics include covered boxes decorated in underglaze black from the Si Satchanalai kilns, but no celadon; and Sukhothai bowls but no fish plates. The dating of the shipwreck remains a bit of a mystery as no wood was discovered so there was no possibility of carbon testing and the ceramics are inconclusive. The working date is “late 15th to 16th Centuries”.
For an overview of VOC shipwrecks, go to: Christine Ketel’s article “Identification of export porcelains from early 17thCentury VOC shipwrecks and the linkage to their cultural identification”: http://www.themua.org/collections/files/original/781b534003feea0a6d7572076fac2460.pdf
History of Shipwreck Excavation in Southeast Asia by Roxanna M. Brown. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/02_brown_040to055.pdf
Several wrecks (Bukit Jakas, Phu Quoc, etc) are mentioned in the The South-China-Sea Tradition: the Hybrid Hulls of South-East Asia by Michael Flecker. https://www.academia.edu/26076283/The_South_China_Sea_Tradition_the_Hybrid_Hulls_of_South_East_Asia
Chunming Wu, Roberto Junco Sanchez, Miao Liu, eds. Archaeology of Manila Galleon Seaports and Early Maritime Globalization, Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd., 2019. ISBN 978-981-32-9247-5; https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-32-9248-2
For an article on the “Naus and galleons in Arabia-Felix-Portuguese nautical archaeology in Oman”, by Alexandre Monteiro, click here.
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