How centuries-old shipwrecks in Singapore’s waters were discovered, Singapore News & Top Stories

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Two historic wrecks have been excavated in Singapore waters. Ceramics dating from the 14th century have been recovered. Here are the details of their discovery and their importance for the maritime heritage of the island city.


How it all began

A Singapore registered barge carrying two bulk loader cranes encountered bad weather on its way to Kuantan and ran aground at Pedra Branca on December 30, 2014.

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

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

Commercial divers were hired to clean up the area of ​​this debris, said Dr Michael Flecker, visiting researcher at ISEAS Archeology Unit – Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS).

It was while diving to recover the remains in 2015 that Mr Ahmad Qamarulhazman, a diver, came across some old ceramic plates, and informed his manager Mr Ramdzan Salim.

Mr Ramdzan said he was skeptical of the find, given the proximity to the rocky seabed. Nonetheless, he asked Mr. Ahmad to identify the area and returned there after their tasks were completed, to find more plaques.

Dr Michael Flecker is getting ready for a dive. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

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

Divers, while following media coverage of the finds, realized that some plaques recovered near Pedra Branca looked a lot like artefacts recovered at Empress Place, and decided to turn the plaques over to the institute for further research. and their conservation.

The rest is history. After ISEAS confirmed that the plates were high-quality celadon ceramics dated to the 14th century, the National Heritage Board partnered with the institute to investigate the Pedra Branca site, uncovering a wreck in 2016. .

Mr Ramdzan said on Wednesday he had a hunch the finds were important because he had previously been on privately funded expeditions to recover centuries-old porcelains.

When asked if he had thought about selling the artifacts he came across, he said getting the valuable plaques on sale would have taken too long. In addition, he added that educating the public about Singapore’s history was the first thing he thought of and handing out the plaques was the right thing to do.

Mr. Ramdzan joined the ISEAS team during the initial investigation in 2016, and then participated as a volunteer in the excavations, thus contributing to a project that was launched by his citizen decision to hand over the plaques to the organizations concerned.


First wreckage: what did we find?


The Yuan Dynasty blue and white porcelain transport from this wreck is believed to be the largest such transport ever found from a shipwreck. Only three other wrecks with similar blue and white porcelain were found, in smaller quantities. PHOTO: ISEAS – YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE


Longquan celadon dishes with a green glaze were recovered from the wreckage. Similar plaques have been found on mainland Singapore. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

• Research has dated the ceramics, which made up most of the artefacts recovered from this wreck, to the 14th and possibly 15th centuries.

• Direct parallels have been drawn between these finds and those of the Empress Place and Fort Canning Park excavations in the past, making the shipwreck very significant archaeologically and historically.

• The results will help shed light on the history of Singapore’s maritime trade and how life was here during the 14th century Temasek period.


Second shipwreck: what did we find?


A range of artefacts found, which includes (clockwise from top left) glass bottle stopper, betel nut slicer, copper alloy beads, agate, a bronze mortar, glass beads, a copper alloy bracelet and a gold tag with Armenian script. PHOTO: ISEAS – YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE

• After the excavation of the first wreck was completed, NHB and ISEAS conducted an investigation around Pedra Branca and discovered a second wreck dating from the end of the 18th century. Efforts were then made to excavate this wreck between 2019 and 2021.

• Cargo likely originating from an Indian-built merchant ship, Shah Munchah, with remains of the ship’s hull. The ship sank in 1796 while traveling from China to India.

• Various finds from this vessel include both ceramic and non-ceramic artefacts.


Several figurines were found, including those (left to right) of a Chinese couple, a dog, and a Qingbai figurine of a horse with a rider wearing a scholar’s headgear. PHOTOS: ISEAS – YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE

• Four anchors – measuring up to 5 m and weighing 2.5 tonnes – and nine guns were recovered from the site. The guns were generally mounted on ships employed by the East India Company in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and used for defense as well as signaling.

• The results will contribute to research on maritime trade activities around Singapore waters in the 18th century.


A cannon is lifted from the seabed using a notched vessel. PHOTO: ISEAS – YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE


How do you find wrecks and what comes next?

Step 1: Investigation

• Instruments such as sonars are used to locate objects protruding from the seabed, while magnetometers are used to find iron objects.

• A modern ship, the MV Yu Seung Ho, sank near the site of the historic second wreck in 1979, rendering the magnetometer useless for this study because the metal signatures were unusually high.

• Divers conducted old-fashioned visual surveys to help locate the second historic wreck.

Step 2: Pre-disturbance investigation

• The site is mapped, including its size and seabed materials, so researchers know what excavation equipment to use.

• Environmental conditions are determined to choose the right vessel and the right diving technique for the excavation.

Step 3: Archaeological investigation


A diver searches for artifacts on the seabed near a wreck found off Pedra Branca. PHOTO: ISEAS – YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE

• A grid is placed on the seabed, and aligned with the keel of the ship if one remains. No hull was found for the first wreck, while only remains of the second ship’s hull remained.

• Dredging devices, which act like underwater vacuums, are used to dig up artifacts.

• Recording is done by various means such as photos, videos and sketches.

• The collected artifacts are recorded according to their grid numbers, while the precise location in the grid is recorded for unique pieces.

• Important parts are wrapped in bubble wrap, while others are placed in boxes and sent to the storage facility.


A diver sorting various objects recovered from the wrecks. Items are registered according to their grid numbers and important parts are wrapped in bubble wrap. PHOTO: ISEAS – YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE

Step 4: Preservative treatment

• Ceramic and glass are desalted and stabilized by leaching out salts through a simple process of replacing the water in which they are soaked.

• Metals are placed in a chemical solution.

• Organics are reinforced if possible.


Recovered items must undergo conservation treatment after being collected. PHOTO: ISEAS – YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE

Step 5: Documentation

• Ceramics are divided into types, like blue and white, or greenware, and also by the furnaces from which they originate if possible.

• Artifact information is put into a database, and this is linked to the grid square in which it was found, allowing easy counting.

• The distribution – how much of each type of artifact was found in different areas of the wreckage – is investigated.

• Cataloging is the final step, where all types and quantities of artifacts are listed.

Step 6: Research and synthesis

• Using the distribution information, how the ship wrecked can be analyzed, much like detective work.

• Artifacts are identified and dated, which is particularly important for objects that are no longer in use today.

• The results are compared with the existing literature. Chinese and Indian texts can shed light on the identity of the first shipwreck, while multiple sources like company records and newspaper articles will help identify the second shipwreck.

• New revelations can be discovered. For example, unexpected objects like a tambourine and shakers were found in the second shipwreck.


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