Lecture: Shipwreck Finds in the Spratlys and The Implications on Territorial Claims

No Comments

Dr Michael Flecker will be speaking at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre later this month on the shipwrecks and territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Shipwreck Finds in the Spratlys: The Implications on Territorial Claims
Venue: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Singapore
Date: 28 April 2015
Time: 3 – 4.30pm

Way back in 1993, the speaker had the good fortune to investigate some of the Vietnamese-occupied reefs in the Spratly Archipelago, the Dangerous Ground marked on maritime charts. The aim was to discover Chinese, Southeast Asian and European shipwrecks that struck the western-most reefs while sailing downwind on the northeast monsoon. Plenty of shipwrecks were found, but none contained the dreamt of piles of glistening celadon or blue-and-white porcelain.

New evidence of ancient maritime trade was anticipated. Unfortunately, the late 19th century does not qualify as ancient. Fortunately, a lack of discoveries can be as important as an abundance. Such is the case in the Spratly ‘Archipelago’, a group of reefs and islets in the middle of the South China Sea, claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Many islets and reefs are occupied, and several are now being reclaimed. The quest for oil and fish may have been the driving force in the past, but the current push is strategic.

China has been more forceful than most. Their nine-dashed line encompasses pretty much all of the South China Sea down to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. While words have been ambiguous, actions have not. It would seem that virtually the entire sea and seabed are being claimed, along with the reefs and rocks. And this claim is ‘indisputable’, largely on historical grounds. What other grounds could there be when the closest reef lies nearly 500 nautical miles from Hainan?

This lecture delves into the archaeological evidence that may support, or counter, a historical claim. Texts are subject to interpretation and can take us only so far. Shipwreck hulls and cargoes can be definitively identified. They can be reasonably accurately dated. They can tell us who was there, and often why they were there. As far as voyaging throughout the South China Sea is concerned, the Southeast Asians, and later the Arabs, were active well before the Chinese ventured beyond their southern shores in the 11th or 12th century. Having achieved a degree of maritime prowess, did the Chinese have any reason to risk the Dangerous Ground in the distant past? Let’s see.

Registration required, information here.

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

No Comments
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.

WWII Musashi wreck found in Philippines

No Comments
Remains of the catapult ramp from the Musashi. Source: Sydney Morning Herald 20150403

One of the most famous World War II warships, the Musashi, has been discovered in Philippine waters. The person who announced the discovery is quite notable too – Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.

Remains of the catapult ramp from the Musashi. Source: Sydney Morning Herald 20150403

Remains of the catapult ramp from the Musashi. Source: Sydney Morning Herald 20150403

WWII Japanese ship Musashi said to be found in Philippines
Sydney Morning Herald, 04 March 2015

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen says he has found one of Japan’s biggest and most famous battleships on a Philippine seabed, 70 years after American forces sank it during World War II.

Excited historians likened the discovery, if verified, to finding the Titanic, as they hailed the American billionaire for his high-tech mission that apparently succeeded after so many failed search attempts by others.

Mr Allen posted photos and video online of parts of what he said was the battleship Musashi, found by his M/Y Octopus exploration vessel one kilometre deep on the floor of the Sibuyan Sea.

Full story here.

Indonesian shipwreck trove to be auctioned

1 Comment
Ming Dynasty jarlet from a shipwreck in the Riau Islands. Source: Detik 20150216

The contents of a shipwreck found in the waters of the Riau Islands will be split between museums in Indonesia and sold to the domestic market. This might be an interesting case to follow as an alternative way to balance the illicit salvage of underwater cultural properties against state intervention and public partnership. The finds from the ship date to the Ming Dynasty, but I am unable to determine much from the archaeology of the ship as the article is in Bahasa Indonesia. (Thanks to Shu from the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre for the heads up).

Ming Dynasty jarlet from a shipwreck in the Riau Islands. Source: Detik 20150216

Ming Dynasty jarlet from a shipwreck in the Riau Islands. Source: Detik 20150216

Harta Karun Kapal Dinasti Ming di Batam akan Dilelang
Detik.com, 16 February 2015

Pemerintah akan mengangkat kapal karam dari Dinasti Ming bermuatan aneka harta di Perairan Bintan, Batam, Kepulauan Riau. Bagaimana nasib harta karunnya nanti?

Kasubid Pendayagunaan Sumber Daya Kelautan KP3K Kementerian Kelautan dan Perikanan (KKP), Rusman Hariyanto mengatakan, usai kapal diangkat proses selanjutnya adalah pengumpulan Benda Muat Kapal Tenggelam (BMKT) dan ditempatkan sementara di salah satu gudang penyimpanan di Bintan.

Beberapa BMKT akan dipilih dan dibagikan ke beberapa museum sebagai sumber pengetahuan sejarah. Setelah itu, BMKT yang tersisa akan dilelang di pasar dalam negeri.

Full story here.

A look at the finds from Nanhai No. 1

No Comments
Finds from Nanhai No. 1. Source: CRI English 20150131

Some images from the Nanhai No. 1 wreck recovered from the South China Sea.

Finds from Nanhai No. 1. Source: CRI English 20150131

Finds from Nanhai No. 1. Source: CRI English 20150131

Over 60,000 Song Porcelains Discovered in S.China Sea
CRI English.com, 31 January 2015

Photo taken on Jan. 28, 2015 shows artifacts discovered on the Nanhai (South China Sea) No. 1 ship at the “Crystal Palace” at the Marine Silk Road Museum in Yangjiang, south China’s Guangdong Province. After seven years of excavation, more than 60,000 porcelain artifacts from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) have been discovered on the ship, which had lain undersea for more than 800 years and was put into protection in the Marine Silk Road Museum after its salvage in 2007. [Photo: Xinhua/Liu Dawei]

More images here.

Shipwrecks reveal ancient trade routes

No Comments
Shipwrecks at Quang Ngai Province. Source: Viet Nam Net 20141123

A feature on the underwater archaeology of Quang Ngai province, where the Binh Chau district is particularly rich with underwater remains. There are aspirations to developing eco-tourism incorporating the maritime archaeology of the area, but the salvaging and sale of artefacts remain a problem

Shipwrecks at Quang Ngai Province. Source: Viet Nam Net 20141123

Shipwrecks at Quang Ngai Province. Source: Viet Nam Net 20141123

Shipwrecks reveal ancient trade routes
Viet Nam Net, 23 November 2014
Read More

Locals reportedly looting shipwrecks in Quang Ngai Province

No Comments
Source: Thanh Nien News 20141028

Fresh out of the underwater archaeology conference in Quang Ngai Province comes more reports of looting of shipwrecks by locals – as much as two tonnes of coins have already been removed illegally.

Source: Thanh Nien News 20141028

Source: Thanh Nien News 20141028

Vietnam salvager says ancient coins looted from shipwreck
Thanh Nien News, 28 October 2014
Read More