An 800-year-old label may rewrite the history of a Java Sea shipwreck

In the 1980s, fishermen working off the coast of Indonesia made a surprising haul: a cargo of ceramic vessels, elephant tusks, sweet-smelling resin, and other artifacts from a ship that had lain on the bottom of the Java Sea for centuries. Most of the ship’s hull was long since gone; wood decays quickly in warm waters, leaving behind only its former contents.

Now, a closer look at its cargo reveals that the ship may have gone to the bottom a century earlier than archaeologists first suspected, which puts it in the middle of a very interesting period in Chinese history.

May you live in interesting times

The Song dynasty (1127-1279) was the height of ceramic export production in China, when the imperial court encouraged overseas trade. Ships crossing the seas were beginning to form a more direct link between far-flung trading partners than the ancient Silk Road could allow. The Srivijaya empire, a formidable maritime power based on Sumatra, was in decline, and other coastal powers in the region were vying for its former supremacy.

And in the midst of all this, a merchant ship laden with ceramics and luxury goods went down off the coast of Indonesia. According to a label inscribed in the bottom of a ceramic box that was part of the doomed ship’s final cargo, the ceramics were made in a city called Jianning Fu. But the city was only called that from 1162 to 1278, the year Mongol conquerors gave it a slight rebranding to Jianning Lu.

Jianning Fu meant the city was the capital of a , or prefecture, a level of government larger than a county but smaller than a province. When the Mongols invaded during the Yuan Dynasty, they restructured the old three-tiered administrative system, and the city formerly known as Jianning Fu became the capital of a larger unit of several prefectures, called a . This forced its residents to change their addresses to Jianning Lu, which must have cost a fortune in new address label printing. (Today, the city is Jian’ou, in the Fujian Province.)

Since it’s unlikely that a merchant would have left a shipment of expensive ceramics just sitting around for several years, let alone decades, the city was probably still Jianning Fu when the cargo left port. That means the ship probably met its fate sometime between 1162 and 1278.

That’s at odds with the results of a 1997 radiocarbon date on a single sample of resin from the wreck, which pointed to the wreck being lost sometime after the mid-1200s. Even so, researchers at the time noted that “several of the finer wares did suggest an earlier date” based on subtle elements of style.

Radiocarbon dating techniques have gotten much more precise in the 20 to 30 years since that test. Field Museum archaeologist Lisa Niziolek says that, when other evidence suggests that dates might be a little off (as it does here), it’s worth the effort to test again using more samples and current techniques. The team used accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), which is more sensitive and more precise than conventional methods, to test several samples from elephant tusks and resin.

“The technique chosen really depends on the amount of material available for dating and the budget,” explained Niziolek. “Conventional dating is less expensive than AMS dating but requires a larger sample size and takes longer.”

The new AMS dates ranged from 889 to 1261, but most were within the 10th through 12th centuries. That’s fairly broad, but it contains the range of dates suggested by the inscriptions, supporting the idea that the wreck dates back to when old Jianning Lu was called Jianning Fu.

A gradual discovery

The discovery didn’t happen in a single “Eureka!” moment. Half of the shipwrecked cargo had been in the Field Museum’s collection since 1998, when it was donated by Pacific Sea Resources, which salvaged the wreck in the early 1990s. Private companies looking for a profit normally spell disaster for shipwrecks, but in this case, Niziolek says things could have been a lot worse.

“Pacific Sea Resources worked with an underwater archaeologist who ensured the site was mapped and locations of salvaged artifacts documented,” Niziolek told Ars. “The company did not sell the collection for profit but gave it to the museum for research and educational purposes.”

That’s often not the case when private companies get their hands on shipwrecks; most of the time, they’re just looking for treasure they can sell for a profit, and they don’t care what they destroy in the process. That has made working out dates for several important Asian shipwrecks difficult, in fact.

The Java Sea Shipwreck had been looted off and on for more than a decade before Pacific Sea Resources got to it, and dynamite fishing nearby had also damaged parts of the site. But Pacific Sea Resources recovered a large collection of artifacts, with enough documentation about their positions and context to make the artifacts useful for research. Half the material went to the Indonesian government under a licensing agreement, and the other half went to the Field Museum.

“The collection was basically orphaned in the late 1990s, and the Field was one of only a few institutions that had the resources to adequately house, inventory, and investigate a collection of this scope that required as much effort as this one did,” said Niziolek.

No one at Pacific Sea Resources had been able to translate the inscriptions on several of the ceramic items, but in 2012, then-summer interns Amanda Respess and Maura Condon took on the project.

“Two of the pieces they examined had the same lengthy inscription on their bases. Although the archaeological report provided some translations, Amanda, one of the co-authors of this paper, was able to identify the characters the salvage team could not,” said Niziolek. They identified a place name: Jianning Fu.

A year later, study co-author Lu Zhang did more research and discovered that Jianning Fu was a fairly short-lived name.

Only two of the ceramic pieces from the shipwreck bear the Jianning Fu inscription, but many others have inscriptions or markings that might tell archaeologists more about the origins of the ship’s cargo. “Many of these are family names, which might be associated with the family who owned the workshop where the pieces were produced. Other markings, such as numbers or abstract lines, might be merchants’ marks used by traders to identify their goods,” said Niziolek. “This is an area that we are researching further and plan to publish on.”

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