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 worldâ€™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 PBSâ€™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.
Lâ€™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.
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
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