800-year-old shipwreck provides clue to China trade


Artefacts from the Java Sea have an important story to tell. Fiona McMillan reports.


This inscription allowed researchers to precisely date artefacts found in the sea off Indonesia.
This inscription allowed researchers to precisely date artefacts found in the sea off Indonesia.
Niziolek, et al

Wreckage in the Java Sea once thought to be from the thirteenth century has been shown to be a century older – providing new insights into international trade during a pivotal time in China’s history.

A study led by archaeologist Lisa Niziolek of the Field Museum in Chicago, US, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, also reveals what is thought to be an ancient “Made in China” label.

In the late 1980s, fishermen off the coast of Jakarta in Indonesia discovered the remains of a centuries-old trading vessel on the floor of the Java Sea. The hull had long since disintegrated, but much of the original cargo remained.

Thousands of ceramics were eventually recovered, along with iron bars, cauldrons, tools, elephant tusks, resin, copper alloy figurines, bronze gongs, and glassware.

Most likely the ship had been sailing from southern China to Indonesia. Based on the style of ceramics, together with radiocarbon dating of a single piece of resin, researchers initially dated the wreck to the mid-to-late thirteenth century.

Several thousand of the wreck artefacts are now housed at the Field Museum. Niziolek enlisted collaborators in China and Japan to analyse the quality of glaze and floral decorations on some of the finer ceramics. The experts suggested the pieces were older than originally thought.

To settle the matter, Niziolek and colleagues analysed a selection of recovered cargo that included elephant tusks and resin pieces using a newer, more sensitive radiocarbon dating technique called accelerator mass spectrometry. The results indicated the pieces were most likely from the twelfth century.

Inscriptions on the underside of two decorative ceramic boxes provided another clue.

“Eight hundred years ago, someone put a label on these ceramics that essentially says ‘Made in China’ — because of the particular place mentioned, we're able to date this shipwreck better,” says Niziolek.

The inscriptions indicate the ceramics had been made in a district in China named Jianning Fu (建宁府), which only existed for a brief time. It was first named in the Southern Song dynasty in 1162, but following an invasion by Kublai Khan’s Mongol Empire around 1278, the district was renamed Jianning Lu (建宁路).

“That place basically had an expiration date,” says Niziolek.

She and her colleagues propose that, due to the expense involved in storing ceramics, it’s likely they were made just prior to the voyage, which could have taken place as early as 1162.

Taken together, the findings suggest the shipwreck occurred in the mid-to-late twelfth century, during an important transition in the Song Dynasty, and could shed more light on the complexities of international trade at the time.

“This was a time when Chinese merchants became more active in maritime trade, more reliant on oversea routes than on the overland Silk Road,” explains Niziolek.

Moreover, she adds, the variety of artefacts, including pieces of glass from the Middle East and Egypt, “has the potential to tell some really interesting stories about the people on board.”

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Fiona McMillan a science communicator with a background in in physics, biophysics, and structural biology. She was awarded runner up for the 2016 Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing.
  1. https://www.journals.elsevier.com/journal-of-archaeological-science-reports
  2. http://www.ansto.gov.au/ResearchHub/OurResearch/environmentresearch/Capabilities/AMS/index.htm
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