A visit to the Phanom Surin Shipwreck site, Samut Sakorn Province

Archaeologists investigating a wooden structure, discovered during their search for the ship's stern.

Over the weekend some friends and I went to Samu Sakorn Province, about an hour south of Bangkok, to visit the Phanom Surin Shipwreck site where an exciting archaeological excavation is going on – the unearthing of a 9th century Arab-style sewn ship.

Phanom Surin Shipwreck site in Thailand's Samut Sakorn Province.
Phanom Surin Shipwreck site in Thailand’s Samut Sakorn Province.

Some of you will know that the Belitung Shipwreck holds the title as the oldest shipwreck found in Southeast Asia – and this, the Phanom Surin wreck, is of the same age. It was discovered in 2013, by the landowner. This area is used for shrimp farming, and the owner had discovered at large, 17-metre kelson while digging on his land. Very fortunately, the owner contacted the authorities, which finally has led to the Thai Fine Arts Department conducting the slow process of unearthing and conserving the remains. The owners remain supporting to this day (the wreck is actually named after the owner), donating the land to to the authorities and now there is a long term plan to carefully investigate the wreck and its remains, as well as to set up a museum on site.

The 17m kelson, the wooden beam running at the bottom of the ship reinforcing the keel, is kept submerged in water to preserve it.The 17m kelson, the wooden beam running at the bottom of the ship reinforcing the keel, is kept submerged in water to preserve it.
The 17m kelson, the wooden beam running at the bottom of the ship reinforcing the keel, is kept submerged in water to preserve it.

The landscape has obviously changed a fair bit, as we are now already 8km inland, but a thousand years ago the shores were up to this point, which explains the presence of the shipwreck. During the first season of excavation last year, the kelson was retrieved and the wreck was partially excavated, revealing several interesting pieces such as torpedo jars (amphoras). Preliminary evaluations suggest origins of the ceramics from India and the Middle East, as well as China.

The site of the main shipwreck remains.
The site of the main shipwreck remains.
A view of the hull, just peeking out of the water. The block in the foreground is what is thought to be the bow. and you can see the curvature of the hull on the left.
A view of the hull, just peeking out of the water. The block in the foreground is what is thought to be the bow. and you can see the curvature of the hull on the left.

Like the Belitung Shipwreck, the Phanom Surin wreck appears to have been stitched together as well, which suggests that it was an Arab-style ship. For a look at how a reconstructed Arab ship looks like, check out my earlier post on the Jewel of Muscat, which was based on the Belitung ship.

Detail of the stitching on the hull structure.
Detail of the stitching on the hull structure.

The current investigation is focused on the other end of the ship. Since the bow has been found, the team is trying to determine the location of the stern. As you can see, the work conditions are quite challenging – you have to be waist deep in mud all the time. Here archaeologists are examining what is thought to be the roof structure of the helm or cabin.

Archaeologists investigating a wooden structure, discovered during their search for the ship's stern.
Archaeologists investigating a wooden structure, discovered during their search for the ship’s stern.

On the shed the houses the kelson, a small shrine has been set up to the local spirits, a common sight in Southeast Asia, especially in archaeological sites. I think someone really did win the lottery, which is why the owners did not mind donating the land for archaeological research. Reminds me that I need to get a ticket today, heh heh.

The find turned out to be good luck, and has become a spirit shrine where people would come to pray for luck, especially with the lottery!
The find turned out to be good luck, and has become a spirit shrine where people would come to pray for luck, especially with the lottery!

Going out to see this site also gave me a chance to play with a new toy: the Parrot Bebop, a quadcopter with an attached camera that I hope to use for later archaeological investigations. If you remember, I experimented with remote controlled helicopters ages ago for aerial photography with no success (I developed the pole camera instead), but now the technology has finally caught up with my requirements. Watch this space for more aerial videos of archaeological sites!

This is a huge discovery, and the possibility of a wreck as old, or even older than the Belitung Wreck (with less controversial provenance) is very exciting. Expect to hear more about this site in the future. In the meantime, you can read about the wreck in the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum newsletter, in this piece that was written last year.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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