Our mystery begins in the 1980s when fishermen found the wreck in the Java Sea. The ship was probably built in Indonesia, and likely headed to Indonesia’s island Java from China. It was no surprise that the wooden hull had disintegrated, but objects found in its cargo left behind valuable clues. Thousands of ceramic pieces from China, cast iron, and luxury trade goods like elephant tusks and resin used for incense were found along the seabed.
The mystery of a shipwreck’s lost history and its cargo
In 1996, archaeologists recovered the wreck, and spent the next few decades analysing and dating the treasure trove. They believed it might have been from the mid to late 13th century. In the late 1990s, over 7 500 artefacts hauled from the wreck were donated to Chicago’s Field Museum.
Enter Lisa Niziolek, the museum’s archaeologist and lead author of the research published in the ‘Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports’
. In 2014, she began collaborating with ceramic experts in China and Japan. Thanks to new carbon dating technology, Niziolek and her wily band of sleuths decided to submit more samples from the collection. It was then that the plot thickened.
They discovered that some of the ceramics resembled pieces made in the 11th and 12th centuries – an entire century earlier than previously thought. That, and a label put on two ceramic boxes that essentially says ‘Made in China’. This inscription reveals their place of origin. According to the label, the ceramics were made in Jianning Fu. The Chinese district was changed to Jianning Lu after a Mongolian invasion around 1278. The ill-fated ship had sunk to the bottom of the sea earlier than that. The shipwreck might have occurred earlier than 1200, possibly as early as 1162. Elementary my dear Watson.
In a Field Museum statement
, Niziolek noted that the chances were slim of a ship in the later Jianning Lu days carrying old pottery with the outdated name. “There were probably about a hundred thousand pieces of ceramics onboard. It seems unlikely a merchant would have paid to store those for long prior to shipment – they were probably made not long before the ship sank.”
The statement added that “the ship was also carrying elephant tusks for use in medicine or art and sweet-smelling resin for use in incense or for caulking ships. Both of these materials were critical to re-dating the wreck.”
“The Java Sea Shipwreck is informative in many ways. It demonstrates not only the scale of maritime trade at the time but also its complexity,” Niziolek told ‘Reuters’
Why is the hundred-year difference such a big deal?
Speaking to the UK’s ‘Independent’
, Niziolek said that the fact the shipwreck is 800 rather than 700 years old is important because it happened during a time of “important transition”. She explained: “This was a time when Chinese merchants became more active in maritime trade, more reliant upon over-sea routes than on the overland Silk Road.”
The ship fits in with the larger picture of China’s rich history, and is full of fascinating insight into Asia’s maritime trade over 800 years ago. But what ultimately happened to the ship? That’s a mystery for another day.