Historical Background       


Shipwrecks are fascinating, from the Titanic to the many shipwrecks in our region. There have been many excavations in the past, but it is still possible to find shipwrecks that have remained undisturbed for centuries. Such shipwrecks can provide the marine archeologists with important information about the past. Thereby we can learn more about the maritime trade in Asia.

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If we have information on when the ships capsized, then it is fairly easy to determine the age of the ceramic cargo found onboard. This is because the cargo is likely to be contemporary. Of course, cross-referencing the results of related shipwrecks will make the dating more precise. This is what the Asian Ceramic Research Organization says about it: "As time capsules, each with content deposited at a single moment in time, these are more valid as dating evidence than are decades of scholarly guesswork based on unprovenanced museum collections".

The Malaysian Waters

The Malay peninsula separates two primary networks of sailing routes. To the west lies the Indian Ocean, with routes extending from the western coast of the Malay peninsula to the shores of Africa, and to the east lies the South China Sea, with a network of routes connecting East and Southeast Asia. Each network depends on the regularity of its monsoon winds. In the South China Sea these winds blow from the north-east beginning in late November or early December until early March, and then from the opposite direction, the south-west, from the beginning of July through to about mid September.

Timing was important, as well as total voyage time. If a merchant from China wanted the first choice of goods from India, for instance, he had to wait in a port such as Melaka until the end of summer, having arrived himself in the spring. Passages from one network to the other required a stop of several months in Southeast Asia. The region reaped benefits from its geographical position in several ways. It sold its own products to both networks; its ports offered shipping services, warehousing and accommodation; it hosted markets; and its rulers found ways to tax both ships and merchants. Ships plying the major long-distance routes - 'the maritime Silk Road' - mingled with those involved in local and regional trade.

Shipwrecks from the 15th-16th centuries in Philippine and Indonesian waters, the Gulf of Thailand and all around the South China Sea provide evidence of vigorous regional trade and production. Manufacturers based in Southeast Asia broke a centuries-long Chinese monopoly in trade ceramics, perhaps with the help of disaffected businessmen from China's coastal provinces. It is believed that some Chinese entrepreneurs, instead of submitting to imperial orders against private overseas trade, moved to bases in Southeast Asia, and that some continued to supply smuggled goods from China.


The Vessels

The Tanjung Simpang Shipwreck (960)


 A 1000 year-old wreck site providing Archeology and Art history with new information. The Tanjung Simpang shipwreck site, the oldest in Malaysian waters, was unusual in many ways. It   was the only site the company discovered in shallow water and close to shore. The site was heavily looted by local fishermen. Despite this looting, a number of Sung dynasty ceramic wares and few hundred kilos of pottery shards were recovered together with bronze gongs. Some of these gongs were signed with Chinese characters, painted on the reverse.


The Turiang Shipwreck (1370)

A Chinese ship loaded with Yuan/Ming dynasty celadon, early Thai green-glazed wares and underglaze painted wares. It is believed that the Turiang wreck sank at a time in the 14th century, possibly around the very beginning of the Chinese Ming dynasty in AD. 1368.          


The Nanyang Shipwreck (1380)

Nanyang, a 14th century shipwreck was located in Malaysian territorial water. She was loaded with now antique celadon wares from the famous Sisatchanalai kilns. The ship was found ten miles from Tioman island, a popular tourist spot and a popular stopover for seafarers since the 9th century. She was the earliest southeast Asian ship loaded with Sisatchanalai celedon and Sukothai underglaze painted plates.


The Longquan Shipwreck (1400)

The Longquan shipwreck was located 15 nautical miles from the nearest Malaysian Island and in 63 meters of water. She was loaded with 15th century antique celadon wares of the best quality. Although only surface investigated, full excavation of the site is expected to provide archeology and art history with new data. The shipwreck and its mixed ceramic cargo does  warrant detailed excavation. It is a rather large wreck, seemingly measuring more than 30 meters in length, with a beam of 8 meters. The Longquan is the largest Ming-period shipwreck found fully loaded.

Very Large Storage Jar from the Suphanbury kilns

The Royal Nanhai Shipwreck (1460)

This wreck was discovered at a depth of 46 meters, 40 nautical miles offshore from Kuantan, West Malaysia. Four years of excavations were completed in September 1998. The vessel appears to have measured 28x7 meters and indicate a typical South China Sea design. This type of vessel, a hybrid that combines Chinese and Southeast Asian elements, has hull planks joined by wooden dowels, and transversal bulkheads. Samples of the wood have been analysed and identified as Hopea Sp., a type of tropical hardwood native to most parts of Southeast Asia.



The Xuande Shipwreck (1540)

The most unusual thing about this site is that it does not contain any remains of a ship's structure. The 'wrecksite' is located 30 nautical miles north of the island of Pulau Tioman, Malaysia and in 53 meters of water. The variety of interesting ceramics recovered and the site description are published in Oriental Art magazine. It was concluded that the ship sunk in the middle of the 16th century but carried a few ceramics that were already old. The concept of an early trade in antique ceramics, is beginning to be considered by some scholars.    


The Singtai Shipwreck (1550)
The Singtai shipwreck lies at a depth of 53 meters, 12 nautical miles from the island of Pulau Redang off the north-eastern coast of peninsular Malaysia.  The site was discovered in April 2001 and only a brief surface survey on the seabed has been conducted thus far.  The survey revealed a heavily loaded vessel perhaps 22 meters in length.  The construction of the ship which includes transverse bulkheads made from soft wood (joined by square iron nails) suggest that it may have been built in China.


The Wanli Shipwreck (1600)

The Wanli shipwreck and its antique chinese porcelain was discovered on the last day of the 2003 season, on the onset of north-east monsoon. For that reason little is known about the ship and its porcelain cargo.     

It is clear however that much of the original cargo had been displaced by fishing trawlers and spread over a large area of the seabed. The entire top layer of remaining porcelain wares, were disturbed, overturned and broken by the trawlers lead line


The Desaru Shipwreck ( 1830)

The Desaru wrecksite was discovered in May 2001 at a depth of 20 meters, about two nautical miles from shore. Initial investigation indicates a wooden vessel some 30 metres in length with transversal bulkheads. Chinese ceramics comprise about 10% of the cargo volume, and these include Chinese blue and white porcelain from both Jingdezhen and Dehua, Yixing teapots from Jiangsu province, and Guangdong stoneware with green and brown glazes. The Yixing pottery also includes a supply of large covered jars that come in sets of two and three sizes. These are believed to be copies of Song-dynasty Jun ware. From Guangdong there are sets of garden pots in diminishing sizes. The blue and white includes a great quantity of Chinese spoons.