Chinese relics found in wrecks off Singapore

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Museums ready to present objects recovered from the depths by divers

Two wrecks, one possibly dating from the 14th century and the other from the 18th century, have been excavated in Singapore waters, a first for the island nation and a revolutionary development for its maritime heritage.

The two ships, which carried Chinese ceramics as the main cargo, were found off Pedra Branca, a rocky outcrop surrounded by shallow water where ships throughout history have run aground.

There are plans to exhibit the artefacts in museums in Singapore.

Maritime archaeologist Michael Flecker, who oversaw both excavations, described the first wreck as a “fairly remarkable” find, as it dates from the Temasek period which spans the 1300s to the 1600s. Singapore appeared on the cards during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) under the name of Temasek.

Although research can never determine the name of the first ship, as nothing remains of its hull, the second wreck has been identified as the India-built merchant ship Shah Munchah, which sank in 1796 while it was returning from China to India.

On December 30, 2014, a Singapore registered barge carrying two bulk loader cranes encountered bad weather on its way to Kuantan, the capital of Pahang state on the east coast of Malaysia, and ran aground at off Pedra Branca.

Both cranes were in danger of tipping over on Pedra Branca’s Horsburgh Lighthouse, built in 1851.

To prevent this from happening, dynamite was attached to the cranes, which exploded as two boats pulled them away from the lighthouse, throwing metal into the sea.

Commercial divers have been hired to clear the metal from the area.

Flecker, a visiting researcher in the archeology unit of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said that in 2015, as they dived to retrieve the metal, project leader Ramdzan Salim and the diver Ahmad Qamarulhazman found piles of old ceramic plates.

Around the same time, a 10-week archaeological dig was underway at Empress Place, Singapore.

Following media coverage of the finds, Salim and Qamarulhazman realized that some of the plaques recovered from Pedra Branca looked like artifacts found at Empress Place. They decided to donate the plaques to the institute for further research and conservation.

After the institute confirmed that the plates were high-quality 14th-century celadon ceramics, the National Heritage Board, or NHB, partnered with the institute to conduct an investigation of the Pedra Branca site, where a wreck was discovered in 2016.

After completing the excavation work of the first wreck, the NHB and the institute conducted an investigation off Pedra Branca, where they found a second wreck dating from the late 18th century. Efforts have been made to excavate this wreck from 2019 to this year.

The first wreckage was found about 100 meters northwest of the outcrop, the NHB and the institute said on June 16, while the second was found 300 meters east of Pedra Branca.

Flecker said in an interview with the Straits Times that various Chinese ceramics made up the bulk of the transport of the first wreck, some matching those previously unearthed in Singapore.

For example, Longquan’s terracotta dishes from the first wreck match those unearthed earlier at Fort Canning, with both sets bearing a double fish motif.

“From Fort Canning, there’s a plaque that’s so similar that you might almost be tempted to think that they used the same stamp (to produce the pattern),” Flecker said.

With the search continuing, he said the find would be particularly significant if it could be determined that the ship was going to call at Singapore, which he believed to be.

Further research will be carried out to improve knowledge of maritime trade in the region during the 14th century.

Flecker, who has more than 30 years of experience in maritime archeology, said the transport of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) blue and white ceramics from the first wreck is the largest recovered from a shipwreck to date. .

“There have only been three other sites (wrecks) with blue and white Yuan porcelain all over the world, and in much smaller quantities,” he said, adding that it was clear to after the main cargo of the two ships, which included Chinese ceramics, they were loaded in China.

The site of the Shah Munchah wreck has yielded a much wider range of artifacts, from instruments to cannons.

Among the startling finds were percussion instruments, including a tambourine and a coconut shaker with a handle, Flecker said.

Wooden umbrellas, metal betel nut slicers and a large number of figurines were also recovered by the divers.

The heaviest finds were four anchors (up to 5 meters long and each weighing 2.5 tons) and nine cannons, which were removed from the seabed by a crane vessel.

Flecker said: “The anchors are suitable for very tall ships, so this is a great find and well worth lifting them up for conservation.”

The nine guns, which he said are representative of those in use at the time, were typically mounted on ships employed by the East India Company in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Weapons were used for defense and signaling.

The artefacts are stored in facilities managed by the NHB and the institute, where they will be cleaned, preserved and cataloged.

Flecker said of Shah Munchah: “If she had survived 23 more years, she would almost certainly have called in the restored port of Singapore. Its incredibly diverse cargo provides excellent insight into the type of goods that would have been traded and purchased by the new inhabitants of this nascent city. “

The wrecks, the first discoveries in Singaporean waters, will contribute to a better understanding of the country’s maritime past. As no claims had been filed for the wrecks and their artifacts at the end of the stipulated one-month notice period, they were claimed by the Singapore authorities.

Although it is very likely that other wrecks lie on the seabed in Singapore waters, some of them have been covered by refurbishment work, while heavy shipping traffic in the Singapore Strait makes locating others a dangerous business.

Yeo Kirk Siang, Director of Heritage Research and Assessment for NHB, said: “As an island that has served as a gateway to Asia for centuries, Singapore today is the heritage of our rich maritime heritage.

“We will continue to research the importance of artefacts and find ways to promote knowledge, allowing more people to learn more about them and Singapore’s maritime history.”

The NHB plans to display the artefacts in museums in Singapore from the end of this year, while the institute will likely publish the related findings in reports and research papers.

A cannon found in one of the wrecks is brought aboard a ship off Pedra Branca, Singapore. YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE / AFP

A diver examines the items recovered from one of the wrecked ships. YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE / AFP

Artifacts are sorted on deck after being brought to the surface of a wrecked ship. YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE / AFP

A diver seizes a Chinese ceramic object found in one of the wrecked ships off Pedra Branca. YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE / AFP





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