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The ‘Made in China’ inscription (highlighted here) indicates that this piece may have been made in the Wang family workshop Jianning Fu Prefecture.

‘Made in China’ Mark Names the Source of Java Shipwreck Cargo

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Experts at the Field Museum in Chicago have made a discovery regarding a Chinese treasure trove that lay strewn on the ocean floor in the Java Sea. The trove was from a sunken ship that carried precious ceramics and luxury goods. Now, what amounts to a ‘Made in China’ label has been read, helping researchers to determine the date of the sunken treasure. Has the new dating changed the way that we see the history of trade in Asia?

Sunken Treasure

According to the Journal of Archaeological Science, the treasure was retrieved by divers in the 1990s and is from an unknown ship that sank in the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia. While the identity of the ship remains unidentified, it has now been definitively established that its cargo was Chinese in origin.

The Daily Mail reports the ‘wooden hull had disintegrated over time, leaving only a treasure trove of cargo’. The bulk of the cargo was Chinese ceramics but also included also some ivory and resin. It is speculated that the cargo was intended to be traded with local Javanese kingdoms.

Chinese ceramic bowls in situ at the Java Sea Shipwreck site. (The Field Museum)

Chinese ceramic bowls in situ at the Java Sea Shipwreck site. ( The Field Museum )

The trove had lain undisturbed until local fishermen accidently discovered it in the 1980s. An American salvage company Pacific Sea Resources recovered the treasure in the 1990s. Their divers helped to bring the thousands of pieces of ceramics and other luxury goods to the surface. Without their expertise the trove would still be at the bottom of the sea. The company later donated much of the cargo from the find to the Field Museum.

New Dating of the Java Shipwreck

The thousands of ceramics and other artifacts have been examined by experts at the Chicago institute since the late 1990s. It had originally been thought that the cargo of the sunken mystery ship came from the late 13 th century and was approximately 700 years old. It had been assumed that the find was composed of goods that came from the period just after the final conquest of China by the Mongols around 1279, when the Song Dynasty was conclusively replaced by the Yuan Dynasty.

However, a team of archaeologists and other experts have established that this is not the case and that the find is a hundred years older than previously thought.  They identified ceramics that were marked with an inscription, that has been likened to a ‘made in China’ label. This indicated that they were manufactured in the Jianning Fu, district in China.  The name of the area had changed to Jianning Lu after the Mongol conquest. This means that the shipwreck’s cargo most likely comes from between 1162 and 1278 the period of the Song Dynasty.

A marked piece of pottery recovered from the shipwreck site. Image: Gedi Jakovickas/ The Field Museum

A marked piece of pottery recovered from the shipwreck site. Image: Gedi Jakovickas / The Field Museum

Lisa Niziolek, an archaeologist, from the Field Museum states that the probability was that any trading ship would not carry pottery made many years earlier. This was because merchants could not afford to store them, and they wanted a quick sale. According to Niziolek as reported by Phys.org, ‘they were probably made not long before the ship sank".

It was not this that first brought up the question of the date of the wreck. In the 1990s, almost half the cargo of the wreck had been transported to the Field Museum and Niziolek began her investigations. After consulting with ceramics experts in China, she was informed the ceramic pieces had more similarity to work of the 11 th and 12 th century than the 13 th.  This motivated the Chicago team to put the find to the test of carbon dating.  A previous carbon dating had established that the cargo was about 700 years old. However, the ivory and resin were re-tested using the latest techniques and analysis and this indicated that the find could be much older than originally thought – in the wide range of 889-1261 AD reported CNN.

Ivory tusks found at the wreck were radio carbon dated. (The Field Museum)

Ivory tusks found at the wreck were radio carbon dated. ( The Field Museum )

That’s quite a wide range of age, due to the poor quality of the sea-soaked samples that were available. But it still puts the latest date for the samples at earlier than previously thought, closer to the mid-13 th century.

If nothing else is proven here, the case does illustrate the difficulties archaeologists face in dating and the importance of obtaining multiple sources of evidence before reaching conclusions.

Niziolek commented: "What surprised us the most were the early dates obtained through the radiocarbon dating of the resin and the elephant tusk samples. These were sometimes much older than the earliest date the ship could have sailed based on the Jianning Fu inscription (1162 AD). This study explicitly illustrates how important it is to look at multiple lines of evidence when trying to answer archaeological questions," reports CNN.

Inscribed box bases from the wreck. (The Field Museum)

Inscribed box bases from the wreck. ( The Field Museum )

From Silk Road to Sea Routes

If the earlier dating is conclusive, it could influence the way that we view the development of Chinese maritime trade, which is a crucial part in the history of globalization. The new date for the cargo indicates that Chinese merchandise was being traded earlier than thought. The trove probably comes from a transition period when Chinese merchants were increasingly beginning to trade by sea rather than use the old Silk Road route. The new dating means that the shipwreck’s cargo offers an insight into the history of trade networks in South-East Asia and the development of the regional economy in the era.

Top image: The ‘Made in China’ inscription (highlighted here) indicates that this piece may have been made in the Wang family workshop Jianning Fu Prefecture. ( The Field Museum )

By Ed Whelan

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