Thursday, August 25, 2005


Ceramics from shipwrecks in South China Sea reveals almost a millennium of trade in Southeast Asia.


August 24, 2005

Recent underwater discoveries of ancient ceramic bowls, plates and urns in the South China Sea have unearthed proof of trade across Asia spanning a millennium.

The ceramics, dating back to the 10th century are from ancient China, Siam and Vietnam and were bound for ports in the Indonesian archipelago and Malay peninsula to be exchanged for spices, tropical wood and other jungle produce.

But the ceramics with European-influenced designs which are proof of the wide market for Asian goods, never made it to their destination and have lain underwater until now.

The findings of Swedish marine archaeologist Sten Sjostrand (pronounced SHER-STRAND) and his Nanhai Marine Archaeology Company will go on display next month and be auctioned to antique collectors.

His warehouse in the sleepy riverine town of Endau in Malaysia's the east coast Pahang state is a treasure cave of giant clay urns, delicate bone china ceramics, exquisite stoneware Yixing teapots and fine celadon ware found from 10 shipwrecks in the South China Sea over he past 15 years.

Calling the shipwrecks and its hold of cargo time capsules of history, Sjostrand said his interest in ceramics began decades ago and is more academic and historical than commercial.

"Well, it goes back 35 years. I was fascinated by the first ceramic bowl I bought from an antique dealer in Singapore. Not that I believed in what he said but he said it was 16th century. I didn't believe it at that time and that started it all. I bought the first book and got more and more confused. I think I found a lot of answers, 10 shipwrecks later, like to my original questions and maybe I can advise some people at least about what actually happened with the ceramic trade earlier," Sjostrand told Reuters in his Endau warehouse.

Operating from the warehouse, Sjostrand and his divers have been searching, mapping and finding shipwrecks for ceramics over the past 15 years - in coastal waters and the high seas of the South China Sea. Most of the work is carried out during the inter-monsoon periods when the sea is calmer.

He said the ships carried more than ceramics but time and tide have destroyed such items as silk and spices - revealing the dynamic trade between the Far East and Southeast Asia and in later years, the Europeans involved in the spice trade in Malacca, which the Europeans dubbed the "Emporium of the East" in the 16th century.

Apart from the 10 shipwrecks with ceramics found by his diving team, Sjostrand said they have also come across some 130 shipwrecks littered across the South China Sea ranging from wooden-hulled to steel-hulled ships.

"Malacca Straits is known to have many many shipwrecks, quite naturally because of the location of Malacca and its true too. If you look at the whole Indonesian archipelago trading with Malacca, really not going up to the South China Sea. So there is potentially more shipwrecks in the Malacca Straits. But my interest lays in the ceramic trade coming out from Vietnam, Thailand and China. They had to go through the South China Sea before even going to Malacca Straits. So because of that specific interest, this is a much more interesting area for me. Yes, there are probably many many more shipwrecks laying out there. But the question today, in the South China Sea, is not how many more shipwrecks there are, the question is now many can you detect?" Sjostand said.

Sjostrand's marine archaeology company works with Malaysia's antiquities and museums department in cataloguing the treasure trove, publishing books and monographs on ceramics and putting a part of the recovered ceramics on display.

"Malaysia, one they have done, they received 30 percent of every single artifact we have taken up. We have helped the museum to make an exhibition at the museum grounds where you can see artifacts from 10 different shipwrecks. It is unique, there is no such other place in the world today. Other countries have done exhibitions with one shipwreck, two shipwrecks but nobody has ever on a permanent display, been able to see artifacts from 10 different shipwrecks. So that is one thing they have done," Sjostrand said.

The remaining 70 percent of the collection belongs to Sjostrand, who has spent his own money estimated at five million ringlet in recovering the ceramics from six of the 10 shipwrecks his company has found. Among the interesting items found include a broken Jesus Christ ivory statue that has to remain soaked in water to prevent it from crumbling.

He said he was auctioning part of his collection to finance further recovery operations from the remaining four shipwrecks.

The auction is part of the "Treasures of the Nanhai" exhibition in Kuala Lumpur starting September 2. Nanhai is Chinese for South Sea and refers to the South China Sea.


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