by Linda Heaphy May 10, 2017

the Royal Nanhai
The Royal Nanhai

At a time when England was occupied with the War of the Roses and Christopher Columbus was planning his trip of discovery to the New World, a Siamese junk plied the waters off the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula, transporting over 20,000 pieces of green and brown glazed Celadon ceramic to the southern port of Tuban in Eastern Java.   The ill-fated vessel came into trouble on route, most likely during one of the violent monsoonal storms common to the South China Sea.  Her unusual length and extremely heavy load may have contributed to her difficulties, causing her to spring a leak and sink quickly to the seabed.  Some 550 years later in 1992, the ship was rediscovered by a dedicated team of marine salvage experts headed by renowned Sten Sjöstrand and renamed the Royal Nanhai in honour of the 15th century Chinese name for the South China Sea, Nanhai.

 
Image and drawing of the royal elephant seal found in the secret compartment.

The shipwreck provided researchers with invaluable new archeological data and a perfect snapshot of ancient maritime trade at the time when the ship was lost.  Analysis indicated that, of the 20,973 pieces of pottery on board, most were celadon-ware from the famous Sisatchanali kilns of northern Thailand.  Samantha black-glazed storage jars were also found, a number of which contained the remains of fish bones from a salt-water mackerel still considered a delicacy in Southeast Asia.  However, perhaps the most important find was that of a hidden compartment located between the lower decking and keel, containing a cache of artifacts including seven pieces of blue and white pottery from China, a finely detailed bronze seal thought to be the personal property of the ruler of Majapahit, a lacquer-ware box and an ivory sword handle.  The presence of the seal suggests that this secret collection was intended as a royal gift to an unknown ally.  It is the presence of the blue and white porcelain that has helped to date the wreck and its contents most accurately, suggesting a date for the wreck of mid-15th century, supported by a carbon-14 date corresponding to AD.1400 +/- 70-years. 

the Royal Nanhai
The location of the secret compartment under the lower deck;

 

the Royal Nanhai
The Vietnamese lacquerware box secreted inside the compartment

Unfortunately, over eighty percent of the pottery pieces recovered from the wreck of the Royal Nanhai were severely deteriorated, partly due to their long submersion period.  Of the recoverable twenty percent, 2,619 pieces were donated to the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur and a further representative selection was given to the Pekan Museum in Pahang State and the Malacca Museum Corporation.  Remaining pieces were made available for sale, allowing some of the finest 15th century celadon wares ever seen to become available to private collectors and institutions alike.  Their unquestionable authenticity and precise dating provide a level of provenance that is rarely seen today in the Southeast Asian antique pottery market, and several international museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, now display pieces from the Royal Nanhai as reference material.

    the Royal Nanhai

the Royal Nanhai
Several pieces from the Royal Nanhai, consisting of plates and fish oil jarlets, were made available to us to sell here at Kashgar, and were snapped up very quickly by Australian collectors. Photo credit: Kashgar.

Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy


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