Shipwreck finds boost to maritime archeology and heritage in Singapore, Singapore

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SINGAPORE – Two wrecks found in Singapore waters delivered tons of artifacts, from tiny glass beads to anchors up to 5m long.

The finds of cannons, anchors and 9 other tons of smaller artifacts have been made over more than 140 days of diving since the discovery of the first wreck site in 2016.

Located near Pedra Branca, an island 24 nautical miles east of Singapore, the wrecks mainly contained shipments of Chinese ceramics – some dating back to the 14th century.

The earliest artifacts – ceramic plates spotted by commercial divers in 2015 – were dated to the 1300s, which led a year later to a study of the site by a team from ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB).

The wreckage contained mostly ceramics, including the largest shipment of 14th-century Yuan Dynasty blue and white porcelain ever found in a wreck in the world.

The ceramics in this wreck are similar to those found at several excavation sites on mainland Singapore.

A second survey of the waters around Pedra Branca revealed the second wreck in 2019, which has since been identified as that of the India-built merchant ship Shah Munchah which sank in 1796.

This wreck yielded a wider array of artifacts, including umbrellas, semi-precious stone agate medallions, ornamental figurines, and even percussion instruments.

After a process of conservation and research, the artefacts will be on display in museums by the end of 2021, if all goes as planned.

Why is this important

The wrecks are the first to be discovered in Singapore waters before World War I.

NHB Director of Heritage Research and Assessment Yeo Kirk Siang said that while these are not the first archaeological digs involving the council here, the previous ones were on the ground.

The big shipping companies were started by the good citizenship of two Singaporean commercial divers, Mr. Ramdzan Salim and Mr. Ahmad Qamarulhazman.

An assortment of items recovered during a dive on May 22. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Their decision to hand over the ceramic plaques they found was hailed by maritime archaeologist Michael Flecker, who is leading the excavation, and Mr. Yeo.

Dr Flecker said the two divers set a good example for researchers of historical artifacts.

Their actions have helped protect centuries-old artifacts – important given the context of looting in Southeast Asian waters – and have made an invaluable contribution to Singapore’s maritime heritage.

Furthermore, although Singapore’s maritime heritage is well documented and the country remains a hub of maritime transport today, there have been no artifacts dating back to the Temasek period (1300 to 1600) found in its waters, until now.

The first wreck – the ship has not been identified – will likely help to enrich existing knowledge about 14th century Singapore, given that the ceramic artefacts found are similar to those from previous excavations at Padang and Empress Place, among others. .

Archaeologist John Miksic, a professor at the National University of Singapore, said the population at the time, which may have been around 10,000, was not just fishermen.

He added that they used Chinese and Sri Lankan coins for cash and were intermediaries for trade between the inhabitants of islands such as Bintan and Batam, with Singapore acting as a connection point on various routes. trade throughout history, “just like the transit lounge at Changi Airport”.

However, Professor Miksic, who has been involved in excavations here since the 1980s, said: “In my experience, each shipwreck has provided a totally unique and, in many cases, mysterious object or objects that do not exist. could not have been predicted.

“I’m sure that’s true for these two wrecks.”

He added that any Chinese artifacts from shipwrecks that have yet to be found on earth will be of particular interest.

What awaits us

In the short term, more conservation and research work on the artefacts will need to be done, which could further enhance their historical significance.

The NHB plans to exhibit the objects in museums as of the end of 2021, with public lectures in the works.

The large amount of finds will also renew calls for the establishment of a maritime museum, with seasoned diplomat K. Kesavapany among those who have suggested the idea in the past.

Professor Miksic said: “It is sad that Singapore does not have a maritime history museum, despite being the busiest or one of the busiest port in the world, with a history dating back to pre-colonial times.

“The artifacts … should be enough to create a museum to educate the public about the importance of the sea to Singapore’s modern identity, and the role Singapore has played for centuries as a major link connecting the east , west, north and south. “

Mr Yeo told the Straits Times on Friday, June 18 that it was too early to consider the development of such a museum, although he added that archeology here has been boosted by sea excavations, including building expertise in the conservation of maritime artefacts, which require different treatment from land artefacts.

The two wrecks thus opened a new frontier for maritime archeology in Singapore.

“Along with the keen interest in our maritime archeology, we hope this will attract young archaeologists to this field and help develop our expertise in archeology over time,” he said.

Mr Yeo added that NHB did not attempt to assess the monetary value of the wrecks and that the council did not intend to do so.

“Our duty is really to disseminate information, to do research and to get people to understand the cultural value, not the monetary value of the artefacts.”

Professor Miksic said the dangers of the sea and Singapore’s busy port should mean there would have been more wrecks in its waters in the past.

However, Dr Flecker said reclamation of Singapore land could make the wrecks difficult to access, while locating them in the Singapore Strait will be very dangerous given the activity in one of the lanes of busiest navigation in the world.


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