Eastern World Treasures

Chinese Junks, Portugueses Carracks, Porcelains, Ceramics and Others Treasures News

  • The shipwreck that forever changed South Africa

    The ship’s junior merchant, Leendert Jansz, kept a journal

    By Nick Dall - BBC.com

    On 25 March 1647 – five years before the Dutch East India Company, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) in Dutch, had established the Cape Town settlement just north of the Cape of Good Hope – the Nieuw Haarlem foundered in Table Bay’s shallow waters.

    Luckily, no lives were lost, and much of the precious cargo the ship was bringing back to the Netherlands (via South Africa) from Asia was salvageable.

    Not long after the incident, 58 crew members were taken back to the Netherlands by the other ships in the fleet. But the remaining 62 men were left behind to look after the valuable spices, pepper, textiles and porcelain until a larger fleet could give them and their cargo a lift home about a year later.

    If they hadn’t stayed, said Gerald Groenewald of the University of Johannesburg’s Department of History, “the history of colonial South Africa could have turned out very differently.”

    Dutch and other European ships had been stopping at Table Bay and Saldanha Bay (some 130km to the north) since the 1590s to load up on drinking water and barter livestock.

    But the experience of the Nieuw Haarlem survivors was the “catalyst” that determined which of the powers would be the first to settle in the region and where precisely they would settle. For the Dutch, it was Cape Town.

    After 1652, according to Groenewald, “the English started to concentrate more on St Helena as a halfway station. The French continued to call at Saldanha Bay from time to time but also had their own colony in Reunion.”

    Werz, who started his career as a marine archaeologist in the Netherlands, moved to South Africa in 1988 to take up a lecturing position at the University of Cape Town. Within a few weeks of arriving, a member of the public phoned to say she thought she’d found the remains of the Nieuw Haarlem.

    Full story...



  • Sackler Gallery cancels controversial exhibit of Tang dynasty treasures

    By Jacqueline Trescott - The Washington Post

    The Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery canceled the controversial exhibit “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” after consulting with an international advisory committee.

    In an unexpected move, the committee decided to seek permission from Indonesia to re-excavate the Belitung shipwreck, which has been submerged for more than 1,100 years, and eventually build an exhibition from those findings.

    Before the cancellation, the show had been scheduled to open at the Sackler in the spring.

    The exhibition of materials from the shipwreck, considered one of the most important archeological discoveries of the late 20th century, sparked a heated debate among archaeologists and historians.

    Critics contend that a commercial company’s recovery of the priceless finds from the Tang dynasty had not met with best practices and high scientific standards.

    “I leapt at the idea of a re-excavation. This is an opportunity to gain the information that was ignored or lost in the first recovery,” said Julian Raby, director of Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art.

    In a meeting in Washington last week, the advisers agreed to try to organize a new excavation of the traditional Arab sailing vessel.

    The ship was discovered off the coast of Indonesia with a cargo of 63,000 items. The discovery showed that there had been a maritime trade route between China and the Middle East in the ninth century.

    The new plan, said Raby, would give any discoveries more scholarly context.

    Full story...

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  • Treasures from the sea

    Oriental arts gallery

    By Christina Low - The Star Online

    Not many of us get excited about unearthed treasures from sunken shipwrecks, but for some it is a passion that promises a lifelong of fun and mystery.

    For Zalifah Azman it is akin to unlocking the secrets to an unknown era and time.

    At an exhibition at the Oriental Arts gallery in Pavilion, Kuala Lumpur showcasing interesting artifacts found in a sunken shipwreck from the Ming Dynasty, Zalifah has interesting stories to share.

    She took us for a short tour of the ceramic artifacts and shipwreck exhibition from the Lena Cargo collection.

    “It is not easy to excavate these ceramic ware, it takes time to get down to the seabed and unearth them,” said Zalifah, who had done plenty of research on such artifacts and feels it is like owning a piece of history.

    “Back then, some even died trying to take these treasures back to land,” said Zalifah, who was put in charge to educate and assist those visiting the exhibition.

    Ceramics from the Lena cargo junk was brought back to shore in 1997 near the Lena Shoal reef in Palawan, Philippines.

    Although it was not certain where Lena was heading exactly, the experts said the Chinese junk sailed from the port of Guangzhou, China and was possibly headed to Anam and Siam.

    She was most likely sailing north towards the Philippines before it sank around the 1490s during the Ming Dynasty era under Emperor Hong Zi.


  • Ancient Chinese coins found in Kenya

    From People's Daily Online

    The underwater archaeological team from the National Museum of China will visit Kenya in Africa in November to search for the legendary "sunken ships of Zheng He's fleet."

    A few days ago, the land-based archaeological team that has already arrived in Kenya sent a piece of news back that they found some Chinese cultural relics, including "Yongle Tongbao," which are ancient Chinese coins used in the Ming Dynasty, in a local village.

    The China-Kenyan Lamu Islands Archaeological Project, launched by the National Museum of China, the School of Archaeology and Museology of the Peking University and the Kenya National Museum, was officially launched in July 2010.

    The project's main purpose is to confirm the authenticity of some local villagers' claims that they are "descendants of the ancient Chinese people" and to salvage the ships in Zheng He's fleet, which were sunk 600 years ago.

    The aboveground archaeological team led by Qin Dashu, an archaeological professor from the Peking University, arrived at Kenya at the end of July and has began to search for Chinese cultural relics left in Kenya.

    After searching for nearly one month, the archaeological team has found many relics, including the "Yongle Tongbao" of the Ming Dynasty.

    The land-based archeology project chose a historic site near the Mambrui Village, Malindi, Kenya as the excavation site.

    The most convincing evidence archeologists have found are the "Yongle Tongbao" Ming Dynasty coins and the Long Quan Kiln porcelain provided only to the royal family in the early Ming Dynasty.

    Qin said that he has studied the place where the porcelain used in the imperial palace was made and the characteristics of the porcelain found in the early Ming Dynasty.

    Now they have found this kind of porcelain in Kenya, he believes that it may be related to Zheng He because as an official delegate, Zheng may have brought some imperial porcelain there as rewards or presents.

    Full story...

  • Zheng He: Symbol of China's 'peaceful rise'

    Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, died in 1433 aged 62 and is buried in the Chinese city of Nanjing

    By Zoe Murphy - BBC News

    Next month, archaeologists will begin work off the coast of Kenya to identify a wreck believed to have belonged to the man some historians believe inspired the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor.

    Chinese archaeologists, who arrived in the African country this week, are hoping that the shipwreck could provide evidence of the first contact between China and east Africa.

    Setting sail more than 600 years ago, Zheng's armada made seven epic voyages, reaching south-east Asia, the Middle East, and as far as Africa's east coast.

    Some say he even made it to America - several decades before the celebrated European explorer Christopher Columbus - although this has been widely disputed by historians.

    Zheng, known as the Three-Jewel Eunuch Admiral, carried gifts from the Chinese emperor aboard his "treasure ship", which groaned with valuable cargo including gold, porcelain and silks.

    These were exchanged along the established Arab trade routes for ivory, myrrh and even China's first giraffe, promoting recognition of the new Ming dynasty.

    But within years of his death, Zheng appeared to fade from public consciousness, and for centuries his legend was overlooked as China turned its back on the world and entered a long period of isolation.

    Now Zheng is enjoying a resurgence - and there appears to be more than historical curiosity behind his revival.

    The sunken ship is believed to have been part of Zheng's armada, which reached the coastal town of Malindi in 1418.

    The Chinese seem confident they will find the wreck near the Lamu archipelago, where pieces of Ming-era ceramics have already surfaced. Marine archaeologists are expected to arrive next month.

    The Chinese government is investing £2m ($3m) in the three-year joint project, which Kenya says it hopes will throw up important findings about early relations between China and Africa.

    Analysts say this ties in well with China's diplomatic overtures to African nations, as it goes about securing natural resources and political influence.

    Zheng He - also known as Cheng Ho - is being hailed anew as a national hero; invoked by the Communist Party as a pioneer of China's "open-door" policies that have once again made China a world power.

    Full story...

  • African quest for sunken ship of Ming admiral

    Photo: Schalk Van Zuydam/AP

    By Xan Rice - The Guardian

    It's another chapter in the now familiar story of China's economic embrace of Africa. Except that this one begins nearly 600 years ago.

    A team of 11 Chinese archaeologists will arrive in Kenya tomorrow to begin the search for an ancient shipwreck and other evidence of commerce with China dating back to the early 15th century.

    The three-year, £2m joint project will centre around the tourist towns of Lamu and Malindi and should shed light on a largely unknown part of both countries' histories.

    The sunken ship is believed to have been part of a mighty armada commanded by Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He, who reached Malindi in 1418. According to Kenyan lore, reportedly backed by recent DNA testing, a handful of survivors swum ashore.

    After killing a python that had been plaguing a village, they were allowed to stay and marry local women, creating a community of African-Chinese whose descendants still live in the area.

    A likely shipwreck site has been identified near Lamu island, according to Idle Farah, director general of the National Museums of Kenya, which is working on the archaeology project with its Chinese equivalent and Peking University.

    "The voyages of the Portuguese and the Arabs to our coasts have long been documented," Farah told the Guardian. "Now, by examining this shipwreck, we hope to clarify with clear evidence the first contact between China and east Africa."

    The project forms part of a recent effort by the Chinese government to celebrate the achievements of Zheng, a Muslim whose ships sailed the Indian and Pacific Oceans many decades before the exploits of more celebrated European explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

    Starting in 1405, Zheng made seven journeys, taking in south-east Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa, in fleets of up to 300 huge ships with nearly 30,000 sailors in total, according to Chinese records.

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  • Tin pots might prove sunken ship's destination

    A tin pot from Nan'ao No.1

    From People's Daily Online

    A new batch of cultural relics from the ancient ship of Nan'ao No.1 were salvaged and exhibited on May 18, including 2 tin pots, walnuts and other porcelains carrying cultural elements of Han and Buddhism.

    Therefore, experts concluded that Nan'ao No.1's destination might have been Southeast Asia.

    Sun Jian, the leader of the archaeology team for Nan'ao No.1, said those color glaze porcelains salvaged yesterday are more delicate than relics from the ancient ship before, and similar porcelains were found during the excavation of another ancient ship called "Wanjiao No.1" in the sea area of Fujian province.

    Such porcelains, according to him, were popular in the European market as well as Japanese market, and most of them came from Pinghe oven in Fujian.

    Among the cultural relics salvaged yesterday, there are two tin pots with typical Ming characteristics. Sun said the two tin pots were close to each other, and that might indicate these two things were not the personal possessions of sailors but rather goods packaged for export.

    Full story...

  • The mystery of the Ming dynasty galleon

    By Malcolm Moore - The Telegraph

    Three years ago, a group of local fishermen were diving off the side of their boat near Nan’ao island chain, a cluster of small islands which lie close to the south China coast, roughly two-thirds of the way between Hong Kong and Xiamen.

    On the sea-floor, one of the fishermen found ten porcelain plates, which he promptly scooped up, stashing a few of them away and taking the others to the market to sell.

    An informant promptly ratted on him and some officials from the Guangdong Cultural Relic Research Institute came to have a word about where the porcelain came from.

    When the fisherman took the researchers to the site, they discovered the wreck of a 65-foot-long ship, probably a merchant vessel, which may have been carrying tens of thousands of pieces of blue-and-white porcelain to foreign markets.

    More importantly, the researchers dated the ship to the late Ming dynasty, probably during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1573 to 1620).

    The wreck is, in fact, the first late Ming dynasty ship ever found. “We have found lots of wrecks from the Song and Yuan dynasties, but this is the first ship we have found from the late Ming era. There’s just nothing to compare it with,” said Cui Yong, the head archaeologist on the salvage operation.

    “We have been trying to raise it last year and again early this year, but the weather has been terrible,” he added.

    The ship was found too close to the Chinese shore to draw any conclusions about its final destination, but Mr Cui reckons it may have been heading in a south westerly direction “possibly to the Philippines”.

    He said: “There’s a high chance it hit a rock or a hidden reef, since there are quite a few in the area”.



  • Hidden treasures

    From The Jakarta Post

    The much-awaited auction of more than 270,000 pieces of 11 century-old artifacts retrieved from a shipwreck in Cirebon and the recent finding of 12,400 items of ancient Chinese ceramics in neighboring Subang waters only confirms the country’s rich in undersea treasures, which may have long been overlooked.

    There are an estimated 3 million undiscovered shipwrecks spread across the oceans, including in Indonesian waters, tempting maritime treasure hunters to dive deep in the sea for a bounty.

    The price tag of the auctioned historical items has been set at US$80 million, and with the proceeds to be evenly shared between the government and the finders, including Belgian Luc Heymans’ Cosmix Underwater Research Ltd., it can be imagined how lucrative the industry is.

    An Australian underwater treasure hunter who was recently declared a fugitive by the police for illegal salvage work of Chinese artifacts in Subang reportedly made $17 million from gold ingots and Chinese porcelain salvaged from a wreck found off the Riau Islands in the 1980s alone.

    German treasure hunter Klaus Keppler, who has been operating in Indonesia for years, says the business is risky as evident in the fact he has searched about 70 wrecks, but only five are probably worth it. He has earned big, however, including from his recovery of a 10th century wreck and a 19th century British vessel that ran aground Indonesian waters.

    The foreign hunters will continue to take advantage of Indonesia’s limited technology, equipment and lack of interest to excavate more treasures lying beneath the sea. Given the fact that Indonesia was a prominent route of international trade linking Asia, the Middle East and Europe in the past, the industry is indeed a money machine.

    It remains unclear how much the industry has contributed to state revenue as there have been no official reports on undersea treasure findings, except from media coverage. Nobody knows either the amount of potential income from unreported discoveries as a result of limited maritime patrols and the government’s control.

    The price Indonesia may have to pay for allowing the business to flourish, however, may exceed the proceeds. As the UNESCO has put it, the sales of ancient artifacts salvaged from the sea may cause Indonesia to lose valuable heritage of the past civilization.


  • Ancient ship may have been used to smuggle arms


    Chinese junk

    From China Daily Mail

    The sunken ancient merchant ship Nan'ao No 1, which is being salvaged off Shantou in South China's Guangdong Province, may have been involved in arms smuggling before it sunk.

    Piles of copper plates, some of them 60 cm in diameter, and copper coins were found on the vessel. There was a prohibition on exporting copper during the period of the ship's operation in the late Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644), Guangzhou Daily reported on Sunday.

    "Even if they were not smuggled, they were carried secretly. The ban on the exportation of copper was actually exerted as early as the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) and became stricter under the Ming Dynasty Emperor Wan Li," Sun Jian, director of the salvage team from the National Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Center, was quoted as saying.

    Archaeologists have yet to determine whether the copper plates are finished products or raw material, because they became joined together after spending hundreds of years under water, Sun said. Whichever the case may be, it was highly profitable to export copper at the time, he said.

    In the Ming Dynasty, the standard currency system was silver, which could be exchanged for a large amount of copper.

    Copper guns and canons were also discovered on the sunken ship. This was not uncommon on ocean-faring merchant vessels at the time, Sun said. Nearly 1,000 relics have been found on Nan'ao No 1 since salvage work resumed last month after a six-month suspension due to unfavorable weather conditions.


  • Evidence shows merchants flouted imperial trade ban

    From China Daily

    Archaeologists working on the wreck of a 400-year-old merchant vessel off south China have found evidence that Chinese merchants probably flouted bans on foreign trade at the time.

    The salvage team has recovered more than 800 pieces of antique porcelain and copper coins from the ancient ship off the coast of Guangdong province, said the provincial cultural relics bureau Sunday.

    Archaeologists believe the ship, which sank in the Sandianjin waters off Nan'ao county, Shantou city, may have been carrying 10,000 pieces of blue-and-white porcelain, mostly made during Emperor Wanli's reign (1573-1620) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

    Some big porcelain bowls found in the vessel, dubbed "Nan'ao-1, " were probably made for foreign trade as they were not commonly used in Chinese daily life at that time, they believe. The find is particularly interesting as the administration of Wanli had imposed a ban on sea trade.

    Guangdong was a major center for the sea trade in ancient China. Sheet copper and coins found during the salvage operation indicated the ship might have been smuggling copper too, as the export of copper was also banned at the time, said Sun Jian, head of the salvage team.

    The Ming Dynasty restricted private sea trade to deter piracy, which had imposed huge hardships on legitimate sea traders, and ensure maritime security along Chinese coastal areas.


  • Odd paintings from shipwrecks

    From Viet Nam Net Bridge

    Some local newspapers recently wrote about a painting on a ceramic plate made in Vietnam in the 15th century. That painting clumsily shows a couple who are making love and one standing watching them. But there are more than that.

    Archaeologists discovered this plate in a shipwreck off Cu Lao Cham Island in the central province of Quang Nam. Dr. Nguyen Dinh Chien, who oversaw the operation, said that since this object was incomplete, archaeologists didn’t pay attention to it.

    It was discovered when they classified objects a long time after that. Dr. Chien affirmed that plate is a Vietnamese antique dating back to the 15th century and said it might have been made to order.

    Experts say that the artistic value of this painting is not much because the woman has a badly-proportioned body and the posture of the couple is not romantic at all.

    It was surely not made to serve playboys nor does it bear the hallmark of a religion or belief. It looks like a lively scene painted by a ceramic artisan when he was greatly elated.

  • Anchors may shed light on famous battles

    From Vietnam News

    They’re big in stature and demand, but Quach Van Dich is not giving up his anchors to just anyone after news that they may be around 700 years old.

    Trung Hieu gets to the bottom of the mystery.

    A series of chance encounters has left restaurant owner Quach Van Dich with two giant anchors, which some believe could shed light on a monumental event in Vietnamese history: the Great Battle of Bach Dang, when Viet Nam’s Tran dynasty defeated invading Yuan Mongolian troops in 1288.

    The river was also the site of another famous victory in 938 when Vietnamese armies defeated Southern Han invaders from China.

    Dich now lives in Chuong Duong Ward of Ha Noi, close to the Hong (Red) River.



  • Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet

    Khubilai Khan lost fleet

    By David Wilson

    This swirling tale of intrigue sets sail off Hong Kong in the waters of the Pearl River Delta. There, in 1279 after repeated engagements, the Mongol ruler routed the Song navy, completing the grand plan of his grandfather, Genghis Khan: the conquest of China.

    In the wake of victory, the new Grand Khan ruled the largest empire ever seen, stretching from the China Sea to the plains of Hungary. His navy, the world's biggest, consisted of more than 700 top-notch ships born of the great rivers that bisect the Middle Kingdom.

    "The craft that plied those rivers, the coastline and the distant oceans beyond were the technological marvels of the eleventh through fifteenth centuries, surpassing anything that Europe put into the water," writes prolific undersea chronicler James Delgado.

    No wonder the Grand Khan felt emboldened to embark on a spot of maritime enterprise. Cue a series of doomed shock-and-awe assaults on Japan, Vietnam and Java.

    Within 15 years, the visionary ruler adept at home affairs but a less able warlord than he originally looked, had frittered his fleet.


    Full story...

  • The needle in the sea

    By Simon Worrall

    Simon Worrall sets sail for a southern island to meet a man fighting the looters of China's underwater treasure.

    It isn't easy getting to Hailing Island. As ever in China, there is the language barrier.

    I have been told to head for Yanjiang, a provincial city about three hours south-west of Guangzhou, or Canton, as it used to be. But the receptionist at my hotel hears the name of the city as Zhangjiang. Finally, after much poring over maps, we get the right place...

    I am not here for a holiday, though. I have come to meet a man called Zhang Wei, head of China's marine archaeology unit. An energetic man of 52 with a winning smile and a mop of black hair, he drives an Audi and dresses in smart western clothes.

    Dangling from a silver chain under his pink cotton shirt is a chunk of jade worth more than £1,000. His cellphone rings incessantly.

    "We estimate that there are 2,000 ancient shipwrecks in the territorial waters of China," he says, as we sit drinking "Kungfu" tea from thimble-sized cups at the marine archaeology unit's base, which doubles as a hotel.

    In a classroom below us, a group of students, including two from Kenya, pore over barometric tables. Through the window, we can see brightly painted fishing boats bobbing on the waves.

    "We have identified more than a hundred sites off the coast of Guangdong and Fujian alone."

    Full story...



  • Quest to solve treasure ship riddle begins

    By Werner Menges

    The discovery of a treasure-laden shipwreck, estimated to be around 500 years old, in Namdeb's Mining Area 1 near Oranjemund early last month is only the first chapter in what could turn into a long slog of archaeological detective work to unravel the secrets of an ill-fated pioneer of sea travel off the Southern African coast.

    The easy part of working on an archaeological site like this is the digging up of the site and recovering relevant material from it, archaeologist Dieter Noli, who played a leading part in the first examination of the wreck site in April, told The Namibian in a telephonic interview from Cape Town yesterday.

    The hard work is analyzing what was found at the site, he said.

    That is expected to be painstaking labor that could take months before it is even known what the real significance of the discovery is, he said. 

    He is convinced, though, that he and his colleagues who will be helping to study the wreck and its contents will eventually be able to find out whose ship this was and what business it was on when it came to an end on that barren stretch of Namibian coastline, Noli indicated.

    "We have to piece together the puzzle. It's a fascinating story," he said.

    The discovery of the ship has been worldwide news, with Namdeb claiming in its announcement of the find last week that this may be the oldest sub-Saharan shipwreck ever discovered.

  • Ancient cannons discovered in Thua Thien-Huet

    Five ancient cannons, and some cannon balls have just been found in Thuan An port, Thua Thien Hue province.

    According to the Thua Thien-Hue Revolutionary History Museum, these five cannons and cannon balls were discovered by fishermen in Tan An village, Phu Vang district, Thua Thien Hue province.

    Nguyen Huu Hoang, a member of the Vietnamese UNESCO Antique Research and Collection Club, on May 22 bought the four brass copper cannons from fishermen.

    The cannons weigh 250kg each. Each cannon has designs around the top, the middle of the body and the end. The near-end part has Latin letters. Two cannons are 175cm long. The other two are 162cm in length.

    According to researcher Ho Tan Phan, these cannons date back to the Nguyen Dynasty (1648 – 1687).

    Deputy director of the Thua Thien-Hue Revolutionary History Museum theorised that these cannons could have been on ships of French or Spanish origin which were wrecked when attacking Hue imperial city in 1883.