May 22, 2003 

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Lost and Found
March 14, 2003

Today, you can buy anything with the click of a mouse and never have to leave your home. But in the fifteenth century, trade was only possible by ships. One such ship, a bamboo-sailed trading vessel navigating the waters of the South China Sea, never reached its destination, and had been sitting like a waiting treasure at the bottom of the ocean for 500 years.

Its recent accidental discovery by prospectors searching for oil brought about one of the largest excavations ever attempted at sea, and provides a unique glimpse into one of the world’s first trading networks that extended from East Africa to Japan. The historical importance of finding a vessel from this extensive ancient network cannot be underestimated, because it is assumed to be one of the last ships from the era in which Asian trade was driven by Asia alone, before the Portuguese traders arrived there.

As shown on PBS’s NOVA, the wreck of this vessel lies two hundred feet below the surface, off the north coast of Borneo, near the Sultanate of Brunei. This was one of the most thriving harbors in the South China Sea. Divers worked with extremely limited visibility for many days on a site that is spread out over hundreds of feet. What they discovered on this lost vessel was a treasure trove of hard, translucent white and blue Chinese porcelain.

Michel L’Hour, the leader of this expedition, told NOVA that he believes some of these well-preserved pieces are from a period of the Ming dynasty, a time when China was at the peak of its military power. Gauvin Alexander Bailey, art historian from Clark University, explained to NOVA that the shapes of the objects “appealed to Southeast Asian buyers. They were inexpensive. They were small. But they also related to indigenous ritual practices.”

The excavation also uncovered small stoneware jars, which had both routine and ritual uses, and thousands of glass beads for jewelry. But the real value of finding these artifacts is in the cataloging. Archeologists and historians, photographing every object, now have a new record of exportable goods from that time period. This database can now act as a virtual museum. They recreated the site itself with computer imaging in order to preserve what was lost in the excavation. They were also able to calculate the size of the vessel, which appears to have measured about 90 feet long and 30 feet wide.

That so much creation has come about from this excavation is somewhat ironic. As Jerzy Gawronski, an archeology expert, told NOVA, “Archeology, in fact, is destruction. As soon as you start excavating, you disturb the original situation. And by raising the finds from their original position, you leave a hole.”

Still, with this lost treasure now found, archeologists and historians can wonder what other lost ships lie at the bottom of the sea, and what stories the artifacts they contain can tell us. For more information go to pbs.org/nova.



by Karen Lurie


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