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Shipwrecks with Ceramics cargo found in Southeast Asia


To view details of a wreck, click on the photo of the vessel


The earliest records of Chinese contact with the Southeast Asian region was during the Han Dynasty.   Ancient Chinese porcelains, which are highly durable , bear testimony to the existence of the trade and cultural exchange.   The Chinese traded them for spices, aromatic and other exotic products, such as kingfisher feather, rhinoceros horns and pearls and etc,  from the region.  In Southeast Asia Chinese porcelains were highly treasured and being kept as family heirlooms and used as funerary objects, many of which have been excavated and could be found in museums and private collections.  

The lucrative maritime trade had enabled many adventurous merchants to accumulate great wealth  But it was also the cause of numerous human tragedies.  For those who made the hazardous journeys, both merchants and sailors, they had to overcome storms, fire, pirates and treacherous reefs.  Many succumbed to the dangers.   Over more than two thousand years of maritime trade, the ocean floor of the South China sea has become the graveyard of numerous shipwrecks. 

The high commercial values prompted numerous salvage operations both legal and illegal to be launched to recover the artifacts.  The Nanking (Geldermasen) cargo was auctioned off with phenomenen success by Christies in Amsterdam in 1986.  It generated great interest, understanding and attention to shipwreck ceramics.   Since then, ancient ceramics from several known wrecks in Southeast Asia, such as those from Ming period Binh Thuan and Hatcher, and that from the Qing period Ca Mau, Vungtau, Diana and Tek Sing were also auctioned off with success by reputable international auction houses.

Since the Nanking wreck, many more wrecks were discovered and the cargoes recovered had enriched our knowledge of export ceramics.  Now we have a relatively complete picture of the type and mix of trade ceramics that were exported since the late Tang period which heralded the first peak of maritime trade. Without doubt, the most important discovery so far of sunken treasure was the 9th century Tang Belitung wreck in waters near the Bangka-Belitung islands in Sumatra.  In 1998, Tilman Walterfang, a German treasure hunter, found over 60,000 artifacts -- ceramics, coins, gold vessels and glassware from the wreck.  It consisted of mainly Changsha wares and a small quantity of Xing white, Yue/Guangdong green wares and 3 pieces of very rare Blue and white wares.  Walterfang sold the cargo to the Singapore government in 2005 for US$32 million.

Sometime in 2013, another late 9th/early 10th century Tang/5 Dynasties wreck was discovered in Binh Chau in Central Vietnam Quang Ngai Province.  Preliminary study revealed that the cargo from "Binh Chau" wreck was similar to that from the Belitung wreck: Changsha polychrome painted ware, Xing white ware and Yue/Guangdong green wares.  Excavations revealed that the cargo were carried in Arab ship termed dhow.  It reflected the key role played by the Arab/Persian merchants in the transport of merchandise along the maritime trade route.

Display of Belitung wreck Changsha bowls and model of a Arabian Dhow

in Singapore Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM)

ACM Belitung display of the impressive dragon head ewer and Changsha bowls

Another important find is the Cirebon shipwreck with its cargo of mainly Late 5 Dynasties/Early Northern Song Yue wares. Another wreck with similar cargo mix was the Intan wreck found in the Java sea.  By this point of time, Changsha ware had apparently completed its historical role and no longer exported. 

During the Northern Song phase, Guangdong ceramics was exported in significant quantity.  There were several un-documented wrecks which carried distinctive Guangdong ceramics from the Guangzhou Xicun and Chaozhou Bi Jia Shan kilns. For more on Guangdong ceramics exported from Tang/Song period, please read this article.  The Pulau Buaya wreck from the late Northern Song period was to only known wreck to carry significant quantity of Guangdong ceramics. There was also small quantity of Jingdezhen and Fujian Qingbai wares. 

A distinctive form of iron-painted floral decoration from Guangdong Northern Song Xicun kiln.  They were from an un-documented wreck in the sea near Riau Island

Nanhai no. 1, Jepara and Kudat wreck provide important information on the ceramics mix exported during the Southern Song period. Another wreck which helps to throw light on the mix of Fujian celadon/white/qingbai and brown glaze ceramics during this phase is the Breaker Reef wreck found near Palawan in 1991 A.D.

During this phase, Longquan celadon and Jingdezhen Qingbai emerged as the best quality export ware.  Some of the best Northern Song Jingdezhen Qingbai I have seen were from a un-documented wreck in Riau region sometime in the 1980s.   Nanhai no. 1 had some good Jingdezhen Qingbai and Lonquan celadon from the Longquan Dayao/Jingcun (大窑/金村) kiln group.  Jepara wreck also carried some Longquan celadon and Jingdezhen qingbai wares.  Longquan celadon ware from Jepara are generally of poorer quality compared with those from Nanhai 1 wreck.  They were likely produced in Longquan Da Bai an/Anfu/Anren (大白岸/安仁/安福) kiln group.

If there is one regret and an important gap, it would that from the transitional Southern Song/early Yuan phase.  The Java Sea wreck probably falls into this phase, but unfortunately it carried mainly Fujian celadon/white/qingbai wares.  It did not seem to carry Longquan/Jingdezhen Qingbai. For Longquan, this is the most important phase with the best celadon produced.  There is no lack of good excavated or shipwreck examples in the hand of collectors in Indonesia or Philippines.

By Song period, the Chinese ship building industry had matured and great advancement made in navigation technology. The Chinese imperial court also targetted maritime trade as a key generated of revenue. With State support, the Chinese essentially controlled the whole supply and distribution chain. It became the manufacturor and transporter of trade goods along the maritime trade route. Chinese junks became a common sight in ports along the maritime trade route.

Among the known Yuan wrecks, the most famous is probably the 14th century Sinan wreck in the sea of Korea. The cargo was intended for the Japanese market and consisted of mainiy good quality Longquan and Qingdezhen Qingbai/Shufu wares. The other known wrech of this period was the Binh Chau wreck discovered in 2014 near Quang Ngai province of Central Vietnam. The cargo consisted of mainly Longquan celadon, Jingdezhen Qingbai/Shufu, Fujian Qingbai/brown glaze and small quantity of blue and white wares.

Into the Ming period, the imposition of the Hongwu ban on foreign contact and trade resulted in a shortage of export ceramics for Southeast Asia.  Thailand and Vietnam made use of the golden opportunity to fill the gap.  They dominated the export ceramics market from late 14th to 15th century. For those interested in Thai ceramics, some the wrecks salvaged by Mr Sten Sjostrand in the sea near Malaysia would be of particular interest.  It throws lights on dating of the Thai ceramics.  Among the wrecks are Turiang (1370 A.D), Nanyang (1380 A.D), Longquan (1400 A.D), Royal Nanhai (1460 A.D), Xuande (1540 A.D) and Singtai (1550 A.D). During the earliest phase of late 14th century to early 15th Century, Vietnamese and Thai Sukhothai iron painted wares were the main export items.  Thai Sisatchnalai (Sawankhalok) potters started producing the celadon during the late 14th Century and this celadon became key export items from the 15th century onward.  It reached the peak in production by the mid 15th century.   The Vietnamese blue and white also became an important export items from about 1460-70 A.D onward. The Hoi an cargo of later half 15th century is the most important Vietnamese wreck which consisted of mainly blue and white wares which impressed us with its wide variety of form and decoration.

The lure of great profit from export ceramics prompted the growth and development of smuggling networks in China and by the 2nd half of 15th century, Ming blue and white emerged as the favourite export item. When the trade ban was lifted in 1567 A.D during the reign of Ming Longqing, Chinese ceramics again dominated the export ceramics market. Interest in Thai and Vietnamese ceramics deminished and by the mid 16th century phased out from the export market

From the Philippines, the Lena cargo is of particular interest to those interested in late 15th century Mid Ming Hongzhi Jingdezhen blue and white.  There were numerous number of big plates with interesting variety of motifs.  Such plates were made to cater to the overseas market and rarely found in the domestic market in China.  The cargo ceramics mix also revealed a shifting of aesthetic taste of Southeast Asia buyers.  Some Chinese Longquan, Vietnamese blue and white and Thai celadon were still imported but in much reduced quantity.   There were also likely some celadon wares from Myanmar which did contributed to the export trade during the 15th/16th cent. The Brunei wreck is contemporaneous to this wreck.  It also carried mainly Jingdezhen blue and white. 

Jingdezhen had emerged as the the undisputed ceramics manufacturing centre in China.  By Jiajing period, blue and white ware formed the bulk of export ceramics. European trading companies from Portugual, Spain and Holland were major importers and played key role in the distribution of ceramics to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle East and Europe. Information on the type of Jingdezhen blue and white from the Jiajing/Longqing period is filled by the Belanakan wreck from sea near Java.  The Nan ao 1 wreck found near the sea of Chaozhou and San Isidro wreck from the Philipines' water provided a wealth of information on an interesting new important category of blue and white from Fujian Zhangzhou (more widely known as Swatow ware).  The Nan ao 1 wreck also carried a small quantity but interesting mix of Jingdezhen blue and white ware.  Together with those from the Belanakan wreck, they are useful references for the dating of Jingdezhen blue and white transiting from Jiajing to early Wanli period. 

By Wanli and Tianqi period, a form of blue and white wares termed kraak porcelain were produced for the European market. The San Diego carried a cargo of mainly Ming Wanli Kraak blue and whites.  Many Ming Tianqi kraak porcelains were also salvaged from the Wanli wreck found near the sea of Kuantan in Malaysia.  Kraak porcelains were found in the Ming Chongzhen period Hatcher wreck. 

Blue and white from Chongzhen Hatcher Wreck 

The only significant player which posed challange to Jingdezhen's role as exporter of ceramics was Zhangzhou in Fujian.  During the late Ming period, it produced a lower quality type of blue and white termed swatow wares in the past.  Archaeological excavations have identified Zhangzhou in Fujian as the region which produced such wares. By targetting the lower end consumer market, Zhangzhou was able to carved a niche market and swatow wares captured a significant share of the ceramics market from Jingdezhen. The San Isidro cargo consisted of mainly Late Ming Jiajing/Longqing Swatow blue and white. Further information on early swatow wares is provided by Nan Ao 1 wreck with the most likely dating of early Wanli period.  On closer examination of the cargo in the Jiajing/Longqing Belanakan wreck, I am now of the view that some of the blue and white wares are actually from Zhangzhou. Taking the lead from Jingdezhen, by the late Wanli period, Zhangzhou also produced Kraak style blue and white ware.  Many such examples could be found in the Binh Thuan wreck from sea of Vietnam and Batam wreck.

There is also no lack of information on shipwreck Qing export porcelains.   We are fortunate to have a series of shipwreck finds which enable us to paint a relatively complete picture of the type of export porcelains in chronological sequence. They are Vung Dau dated to around 1680s, Bintan 1710s, Ca mau 1720s, Nanking 1752, Diana cargo 1817 and Tek Sing cargo 1821.  Other then the Tek Sing cargo which consisted of enormous amount of Dehua blue and white, the other wrecks carried esssentially Jingdezhen made porcelain with designs specifically tailored for the export markets of Europe, Middle East and Asia.

Many more  wrecks will inevitably be discovered and the artifacts recovered in future.  Just as an indication, according to the latest research by the Indonesia Navy and the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry , there are at least 463 shipwrecks  scattered throughout the country's seas. The sea near central and South Vietnam is another region which we can expect more shipwreck discovery.


Chronology and Significance of the shipwrecks


Name of wreck Location Date Type of Ceramics Significance of the Wreck
Chinese Southeast Asia
Belitung Indonesia 9th Cent.


Changsha painted wares, some Yue and Xing/ding white wares This is so far the earliest shipwreck found in Southeast Asia.  It showed that there was already a thriving overseas trade in ancient ceramics since Tang Dynasty
Tang Binh Chau Quang Ngai, Central Vietnam Late 9th Cent.
Changsha painted wares, some Yue and Xing white wares  

This wreck is around 50 years later than that from Belitung wreck. It showed that the decorations of Changsha wares have evovled.

Cirebon Indonesia 10th Cent.

Early Northern Song

Yue wares and some white wares likely from Anhui kiln. The size of the cargo is very large with ceramics amounting to  more than 300,000 pieces.  The types of Yue wares found is varied and is a very important souce of reference for 5 Dynasties/Early North Song Yue wares.  
Intan Indonesia 10th Cent. Some quantity of Yue wares and white/qingbai wares from unknown kilns. No comments
Pulau Buaya Indonesia Late 11th to early 12th century

Late Northern Song

Majority celadon, Qingbai, and brown glaze wares from Guangdong.  Small quantity of Jingdezhen Qingbai. This is the only know wreck from the Northern Song period that carried mainly Guangdong ceramics.
Nanhai No. 1 China 1st half 12th Cent.

Early Southern Song


Jingdezhen qingbai, Longquan celadon,  brown and white/Qingbai from Fujian kilns, low fired lead glaze wares from Fujian Cizao kiln, Temmoku bowl from Jian kiln, celadon wares from Fujian kilns This wreck is in good condition and is now house in Guangdong Maritime silkroad Museum (广东海上丝绸之路博物馆).  It will provide important information on the types of ceramics and building and navigation technologies once fully explored but is expected to take many years.
Jepara Indonesia 1st half 12th Cent.

Early Southern Song

Fujian celadon and white wares, Longquan celadon wares The cargo provides a good idea of the Dehua white wares, Mingqing white ware and Fujian celadon wares that were exported. There were also significant quantity of Longquan celadon wares. 
Kudat  Sabah (Malaysia) 1st half 12th Cent.

Early Southern Sng

Fujian celadon, white/Qingbai and brown wares The wreck is substantially looted.  The 800 pieces ceramics however still provide a glimpse of the type of ceramic mix exported during the period.
Yuan Binh Chau Quang Ngai, Central Vietnam 14th Cent.
Late Yuan
Longquan celadon, Jingdezhen Qingbai/shufu, Fujian Qingbai and brown glaze, Jingdezhen blue and white wares


The cargo provided information on the ceramics mix for the late Yuan period.

Turiang  Malayasia 1370 A.D Mainly longquan celadon Sisatchanalai green glaze jars and bottles.  Sukhothai iron painted wares.  Vietnamese iron painted wares. The larger number of Chinese celadon suggested that Thai ceramics had yet to emerge as an important source of export ceramics.  There were a small number of jars and bottles with thin green glaze  which Sten Sjostrand  has decided to make a distinction from the typical more thick glaze celadon.   It appeared to indicate that the iron painted wares were introduced earlier than the typical Thai Sisatchanalai thicker glaze celadon wares.
Nanyang  Malayasia 1380 A.D Sisatchanalai (Sawankhalok) celadon wares It carried probably the earliest thick glaze Sisatchanalai celadon wares (as opposed to the  thin green glaze in Turiang wreck) . The interior of the celadon plates/bowls  are scarred by spur marks.  The use of spurs were abandoned shortly and tubular support which left a ring shape scar mark  on outer base was used instead. 
Longquan Malayasia 1400 A.D Chinese longquan celadon and white wares of unknown Chinese  origin Sisatchanalai (Sawankhalok) celadon and iron painted sukhothai wares About 100,000 pieces were recovered,  ie  15 times the volume on the Turiang.  There were 40% Chinese wares, 40% celadon from Sisatchanalai, and 20% underglaze ware from Sukhothai.   It showed that Thai ceramics had emerged as an important source of export ceramics.  The celadon plates/bowls were fired on tubular supports and none has the spur marks on the interior base found on the earlier cealdon.
Pandanan Philippines 1st Half 15th Cent.

Ming Interregnum

Small quantity of Jingdezhen blue and white wares Mainly ceramics from Central Vietnam and some Vietnamese blue and white wares Although the number is small, it is still a valuable source of reference of Interregnum period  Jingdezhen blue and white wares.
Royal Nanhai Malayasia 1460 A.D Few Jingdeszhen blue and white  and 2 Vietnamese blue and white  in hidden  compartment Sisatchanalai  (Sawankhalok) celadon It showed Sisatchanalai celadon during the mature phase of production.   The technique, form and decoration as demonstrated on the wares were at the  very best.
Hoi An Vietnam 2nd half 15th Cent. Small quantity of blue and white Vietnames blue and white and enamelled wares This is a very important wreck which provides good references for  Vietnamese blue and white of the 2nd half of  15th century.  There were many different forms and design and the hugh volume indicated that it was the peak of Vietnamese export ceramics.
Lena Philippines 2nd Half 15th Cent.

Ming Hongzhi

Mainly Blue and white, small number of Longquan celadon Small number of Vietnamese blue and white and Thai celadon  Hongzhi period is most probably the starting point which Jingdezhen resumed production of increasing  large number of blue and white for overseas market.  This wreck carried blue and white wares with quite a wide arrange of motifs and design.  It is a good source of reference  for understanding Hongzhi blue and white wares.
Xuande  Malayasia 1540 A.D 170 Chinese Jiajing blue-and-white ceramics  30 iron painted wares of late style from Sukothai and Sisatchanalai  The relatively small number of Thai ceramics and larger number of Chinese blue and white  very much confirmed the re-emergence of chinese ceramics as the favoured export wares.  There was no Thai celadon found in the wreck.   It might also be an indication of the overseas consumers preference for decorated wares over monochrome.
Singtai Malayasia 1550 A.D Small number of Sukhothai and Sisatchanalai iron-pained wares It might be a further evidence of overseas consumers preference for decorated wares over monochrome celadon wares  By now, Chinese blue and white was the most mportant export ceramics as shown in the below wrecks.
Belanakan Indonesia Mid 16th Cent.
Ming Jiajing/Longqing
Jingdezhen blue and white wares   A source of reference for Jingdezhen  Blue and white wares.
San Isidro Philippines Mid 16th Cent.

Ming Jiajing

Swatow blue and white A good source of reference for early types of Swatow blue and white wares
Nan Ao No. 1 Southern China Mid/3rd Qtr 16th Cent.

Ming Jiajing/Wanli

Mainly Swatow and some Jingdezhen blue and white Another wreck which can serve as a reference for early Swatow blue and white wares.
San Diego Philippines 1600 A.D

Ming Wanli

Jingdezhen blue and white and small number of swatow wares It is a reference for some of the kraak wares that were produced to meet overseas demand.
Binh Thuan Vietnam Early 17th Cent.

Ming Wanli

Swatow blue and white and enamelled wares This wreck is a good source of reference for Swatow wares that were produced during the Wanli and later period.  The composition of some of them is similar to Jingdezhen kraak blue and white wares.
Batam Indonesia Early 17th Cent.

Ming Wanli

Swatow blue and white and enamelled wares  

This wreck is a good source of reference for Swatow wares that were produced during the Wanli period.

Wanli Malaysia 1st Half 17th Cent.

Ming Tianqi

Jingdezhen blue and white This is an important wreck for those who are interested to identify Ming Tianqi blue and white.  This is the start of the transitional phase of  change of style of Late Ming  to Early Qing blue and white.
Hatcher Indonesia 1st Half 17th Cent.

Ming Chongzhen

JIngdezhen blue and white Another good source of reference in identifying transitional blue and white wares. 
Vung Tau Vietnam 2nd half 17th Cent.

Qing Kangxi

Mainly Jingdezhen and small number of swatow blue and white  A source of reference of  Jingdezhen export wares of the Mid Kangxi period to Europe
Bintan Indonesia 1st half of 18th Cent.
Qing Kangxi

Mainly Jingdezhen blue and white/enamelled wares. Small quantity of sancai wares


A source of reference of  Jingdezhen export wares of the late  Kangxi period to Europe

Ca Mau Vietnam 1st half 18th Cent.

Qing Yongzheng

Jingdezhen blue and white and small nukmber of shiwan sancai wares A good source of reference of  late Kangxi/early Yongzheng Jingdezhen export ceramics wares to Europe.
Nanking (Geldermaisen) Indonesia Mid 18th Cent.

Qing Qianlong

Jingdezhen blue and white and enamelled wares A good source of reference of  Mid Qianlong Jingdezen export ceramics wares to Europe
Diana Malaysia 1817 A.D

Qing Jiaqing

Jingdezhen blue and hwite A good source of reference of Qing Jiaqing period Jingdezhen export ceramics wares to Europe
Tek Sing Indonesia 1821 A.D

Qing Daoguang

Dehua or Dehua type blue and white, some Fujian brown glaze wares and Yixing teapots A source of reference for early  19th century Dehua blue and white wares.  The huge quantity amountng to more than 350,000 pieces indicated that the demand for such ceramics was substantial in Southeast Asia.  In fact, such Dehua blue and whites were found in large quantity in the ancient Vietnamese port of Hoi an.
Desaru Malaysia +/- 1840 A.D Mainly Jingdezhen blue and white, some Fujian blue and white and Yixing teapots A reference source of  late Daoguang period blue and white for Southeast Asia market


Written by: NK Koh (18 Dec 2010), updated (12 Jan 2016)



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