Ceramics and shipwrecks
I’ve always been fascinated with ancient shipwrecks, sad and tragic events that have nonetheless enriched our knowledge of traders, trade routes, ports and the kinds of objects that were traded in island Southeast Asia (SEA). In the Philippines, shipwrecks found mostly around the vicinity of the West Philippine Sea, have provided tremendous information about the routes that Arab, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese traders took as the moved either down the coast of the Indian Ocean (for the Arabs) or down the Pacific coast to reach trading ports in Indonesia or the Philippines.
Violent storms that met them along the way, spelled doom for what would have been a windfall bartering ceramics and iron ingots for gold and spices to be sold back home or to pay in part for the traded items.
The absence of records, except for the important 12th century customs report of the Chinese official Zhao Rukuo (Chau Ju Kua), means that only a careful and serious series of studies about these shipwrecks that have been salvaged during the last three decades will yield important data.
And so it is with delight that a whole day of a six-day conference of archaeologists and colleagues in the former Vietnamese imperial city of Hue, has been devoted to maritime trade in the precolonial period. I am referring to the conference of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA), which happens only once every four years. Now on its 21st conference, I have only attended the five latest ones as a member. And in each of those meetings, one is able to further enhance one’s knowledge about the kinds of trade goods that were moved in island Southeast Asia.
This latest one is no exception. Access to knowledge that one gets from attending nearly 500 papers that range from research on early humans in Asia to glass beads in the late colonial period, is like reading 500 scholarly journals and perhaps 200 full-length books.
My interest, of course, has been on the Iron Age and on the era of ceramic trading that can bear so much on the finds made in the Philippines.
To illustrate, a Java Sea shipwreck, 50 percent of which was donated to the Field Museum in Chicago 20 years ago by the commercial salvor (perhaps as a tax write off yielded some important facts in the conference. Studied only very recently and still on-going, an analysis of its cargo of perhaps 100,000 pieces of Chinese ceramics, 360 pieces of Thai kendi pieces, even elephant tusks and resin probably from Japan, as well as personal possessions of the traders who perished in this shipwreck seem to indicate that the ship dropped anchor in many ports as it went down to Java.
Finds like this are much welcome and awaited as museums like the one we have at the University of San Carlos exhibit items that are similar to those found in shipwrecks. The beauty of the former imperial capital of Hue, of course, is but a bonus that I hope to write about next week.
It’s the fourth time I have joined about 700 archaeologists from all over the world who call SEA and the Pacific their research area.
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