Fong Peng Khuan for ARTS OF ASIA:
THE WANLI SHIPWRECK AND ITS CERAMIC CARGO by Sten Sjostrand and Sharipah Lok Lok bt. Syed Idrus, published in 2007 by Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd. in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage Malaysia and the Department of Museums Malaysia. Designed by E-Magineers (M) Sdn. Bhd. 360 pages. 650 full colour illustrations. 4 maps. Bibliography, Index. ISBN 967-9935-74-4. US$80 (hard cover).
At first glance, it seems like a coffee table publication but you cannot judge this one by its cover and size. A heavy tome and obvious labour of love, this 360-page book is about the 17th century porcelain laden shipwreck salvaged in Malaysia off the shore of Terengganu state near Tenggol island in the South China Sea from 2004 to 2007.
According to the book, the Portuguese had acquired the chinaware and pottery cargo at their Chinese enclave in Macau before the ship set sail for Melaka (Malacca) or Batavia (present day Jakarta) around the year 1625. An ill-fated voyage, the ship never arrived at its intended entrepot destination. Sunk in battle, it laid buried in the seabed until found almost 400 years later. Being a complete cargo from its point of origin adds to its importance as a perfect time capsule of 17th century trade goods exported from China.
The main author, Sten Sjostrand of Nanhai Marine Archaeology, is the principal figure behind the series of 10 undersea excavation of old shipwrecks dating from the 11th to the 19th centuries in various regions of Malaysia over the past 20 plus years. Credited as his co-writer, Sharipah Lok Lok bt. Syed Idrus from the Department of Museums Malaysia, had assisted him in the Wanli shipwreck project.
After two decades of sifting through his accumulated research notes and records, mariner turned archaeologist Sjostrand has produced a remarkable publication. The results impress as a landmark work of investigative study and scholarship based on empirical input and marine archaeology. Not only does the book shed new light on late Ming ceramics, particularly kraak wares made for the European market, it also sets a standard for which all other similar shipwreck excavation attempts will be benchmarked in future.
In her introduction on the book’s back cover jacket flap, Roxanna M. Brown, director of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Museum at Bangkok University, Thailand, who is a noted expert in ancient trade ceramics, lauds the full accounting of the archaeological excavation and the inventory of the recovered artifacts which the authors date to circa 1625 after thorough analysis. In her view, the new data means that all the previous studies of 17th century Chinese export ceramics will have to be reviewed and refined.
Brown adds, “The report documents a fruitful relationship between Malaysia’s Department of Museums and Sten Sjostrand of Nanhai Marine Archaeology that began in the 1990s. The excavation of the Wanli Shipwreck in Malaysia’s territorial waters is only the latest chapter in their joint efforts to illuminate history through projects in marine archaeology. The accumulated details of this shipwreck reveal a surprising and explosive history – the date, the historical circumstances, the mounds of shattered porcelain associated with broken and missing hull planks lead intractably to the theory that the vessel was a Portuguese-managed ship that sank in a sea battle with Dutch forces that were seeking to control the port of Melaka.”
Throughout the book, ample illustrations accompany the reports, documentation and cataloguing of the shipwreck’s hoard. Four different maps identify the wreck location, kiln and raw material sites in Jingdezhen, porcelain transports through China’s inland rivers and recently discovered kiln sites in Jingdezhen. A tabulated table summarises the 7,434 items of artifacts including 9.083 kg of shards leading to an estimate of 37,300 pieces of ceramics that were in the sunken cargo. Lavish photographic spreads depict the variety of ceramic wares ranging from baluster jars to kendis, bowls, ewers, plates and bottles. Black and white sketches and line drawings capture the in situ state of the wreckage and describe the hull, keel and joints. The meticulous studies show the painstaking methods of records collected and compiled with passion and devotion.
The book’s core contents are presented in five parts. Under “Archaeology”, the first part, Sjostrand suggests with sketches, drawings and political history how the Portuguese ship was blown up by its rival trading power after an encounter at sea. The incident damaged more than 90 per cent of the precious cargo. From tables and proper recording at the excavation site, he notes that the Wanli shipwreck cargo is the first intact cargo ever found before it could be sorted out for distribution in Southeast Asia. Had the ship reached Melaka, its likely destination, the porcelain cargo would have been divided up for re-directing to other Southeast Asian and European ports, making it impossible to say what the ship had originally carried from China.
He focuses on the marine archaeology such as site conditions, pre-disturbance survey phase, cargo removal phase, artifact registration and handling, mapping and recording phase and the recording process itself. His training and experience as a marine engineer enables him to fully explain the shipwreck’s structure, timber, overall size, cause of sinking, shipbuilding and principal wreck arrangement. All the salvaged cargo comprising kraak porcelain, Wanli period (1573 -1620) blue and white ceramics and non-ceramic items are detailed along with the conservation and restoration efforts and shipwreck site dating method. To satisfy the reader and pre-empt any questioning, the artifact sharing, museum participation and salvage diving history round up the wealth of information and data in Part One.
Part Two is the backgrounder and dwells on Jingdezhen as the ancient and most important porcelain centre of China. Based on their field trips to Jingdezhen to understand the manufacturing process of blue and white ceramics, the authors then relate the Wanli cargo to the original source of production. Insightful backgrounders on the 17th century merchants from Portugal and Holland elucidate the craze for and profitable trade in blue and white export wares in Europe. The transportation routing of Jingdezhen ceramics to southern Chinese ports is also discussed. This section ends with a commentary on the newly found private kilns in the Jingdezhen area.
The lengthy ceramic catalogue in Part Three, which forms the welcomed bulk of the book, is a tour de force of research and study on 17th century Chinese porcelain. Art collectors, dealers, museum curators and scholars stand to benefit much from the visuals and texts therein. By concentrating on the variety of excavated artifacts, the authors provide factual tables of the ceramic types found in the shipwreck. The full colour overview and close-up photographic images spread generously over 188 pages deserve special mention and attention. Pottery reign marks and inscriptions besides border panel and centre medallion decorations are also well illustrated and described, showing the academic thoroughness of the book’s documentation.
Part Four entitled “Endnotes” lists a total of 176 footnote type commentaries on individual pieces of the Wanli shipwreck cargo. Comparisons and contrasts are made to other known examples in private, public and institutional collections around the world. Ideas and opinions on decorative details and other potting features are offered to arouse the reader’s interest.
In Part Five, the appendixes provide comprehensive information about the whole project and many erudite details. They cover ceramic foot-ring analysis, onboard typology listing, the reports of the Malaysian participants who were in the dive expeditions, analysis of large kraak plate joints, ballast and seabed material analysis. Last but not least, even the DNA analysis of bones recovered from the shipwreck is given.
The book concludes with the usual acknowledgements. There is also a useful bibliography of notable references and an index of the topics mentioned by the authors.
As a result, we now have a much clearer and better picture of the ancient maritime trade between the Far East and Europe as well as Chinese trade goods. The Wanli shipwreck highlights the time when Chinese blue and white export wares resurged in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Ming gap shortages of the mid-14th to 15th centuries when the Ming imperial edict in 1371 forbade Chinese maritime merchants to venture beyond their shores to trade with the West and the rest of the world.
This self-taught expert and authority on antique Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics, maritime history and undersea excavation learned everything through the school of hard knocks after he developed a greater interest in the topics following his relocation to Malaysia in the 1970s.
Sjostrand's earlier publications lay the groundwork for this latest achievement. An 118-page exhibition catalogue, Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia (ISBN: 967-9935-16-7) which he co-authored with Roxanna M. Brown was published by the National Museum, Malaysia in 2002. A 64-page monograph, Turiang: A Fourteenth Century Shipwreck in Southeast Asian Waters (ISBN: 1-877921-17-3) also co-written with Roxanna M. Brown was published by the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California, USA, in 2000.
Previously, he co-wrote with Claire Barnes a 38-page report entitled A Fourteenth Century Chinese Shipwreck Ups Southeast Asian Ceramic History published by the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in Kuala Lumpur. The draft report on another shipwreck he salvaged, Royal Nanhai and its Ceramic Cargo is available online at www.maritimeasia.ws. The 1997 summer issue of Oriental Art Magazine(Vol. XLIII/2) has two separate articles by Sjostrand and Brown about the mysterious 16th century Xuande (1425-1436) shipwreck (circa 1540) and its ceramic cargo of 250 artifacts comprising antique Chinese and Thai porcelain. Two decades earlier, he co-wrote an exhibition catalogue in Swedish, Treasures from Sunken Ships with Professor Jan Virgin from the Far Eastern Antiquities Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1977.
Seen in retrospective, his portfolio of writings demonstrate his dedication to accounting the historical circumstances and providing many first-hand photographic images of the series of ancient shipwrecks recovered in Southeast Asia. Taken as a whole, his published works are nothing to scoff at as envious academicians would have it but can even be deemed admirable for being so meticulous, substantial and thorough. If The Wanli Shipwreck and and its Ceramic Cargo is not to be regarded as academic, then readers are fooling themselves.
Publishing this book, however, is not the be-all and end-all of Sjostrand’s life-long work in the field of marine archaeology. Today, he welcomes visitors to his head office in Kuala Rompin, Johor. Although it is in a rather isolated area of Peninsular Malaysia, you are rewarded by the enthusiasm he shows for his work and passion. He enjoys sharing his knowledge and putting things in historical chronology and relating them to facts, figures and material evidence. Overseas readers can even query him and/or buy this book online by going to www.mingwrecks.com.
Fong Peng Khuan
Comments from buyers of: The Wanli Shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo
We never met, and so I am glad to be able to establish contact this way. First, let me tell you how much I value your Wanli Wreck publication ! Very useful, well produced, with attention to details and based on proper scholarly approach. It has become indispensable in my private library! Professor Christiaan Jorg. Holland
I just received the Wanli book, thank you very much! It is very impressive just on first sight and I think it certainly sets a new standard for documentation of shipwreck ceramics-it looks better than many books written by researchers who were trained to be professional archaeologists from their young ages. Dr. Baoping Li. Research fellow at University of Queensland
It is marvellous and unique. Congratulation. I guess special books are only written by special people!
Nicholas, South Africa.
The book arrived on Friday at the post office but I only recieved it on Sunday. It is an absolute treasure! Very very beautifull and most well layed out! Fantastic! Michael n Sonja, Namibia
Yes...I got the catalogue and it is spectacular. You did an amazing job!!!! Dave Crooks, USA
Dear Sten - yes, the book has arrived and i think it is an extremely well documented book of such a large find complex. I am glad you choose to use the same type of drawing as we did in the Witte Leeuw catalogue. The details of the shards and the measurements etc. are also very good. I think it is a very important asset to the overal knowledge of this type of ware. Good luck wih your book! Greetings, Christine Ketel, England
It’s a very detailed work and I give you my congratulations for the text and for the illustrations. Antonio Marcelo. Portugal
The book arrived extremely swiftly after it had been ordered and in perfect condition. It is both a handsome volume and one impeccably presented from the point of view of scholarship. We are delighted to have it and it is a significant asset in our small library. Dr. Stephen Davies. Hong Kong Maritime Museum
Thank you for your book. Its contents is extremely important and very helpful to my research. I am looking forward to meet you again in the spring of 2008 and exchange our viewpoint about the excavation of Guanyinge site. I will mail the report and photos of our excavations to you as soon as possible. Wang Guangyao. Research fellow, The Palace Museum, Beijing. China
I have received your book and I must say it is by far the best published porcelain cargo I have ever seen! You and your friends have done a very good job. In the comming year I will write a small article about this book in Vormen uit vuur (www.vormenuitvuur.nl). This is the leading magazine about historical pottery in the Netherlands (I am one of the editors). I will also send you some pictures soon from the items I have bought from you. They are on display in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam right now. Sebastiaan. S. Ostkamp. Holland
Since the 1990s, maritime archaeology has been one of most important sources of significant numbers of new acquisitions for the Department of Museums Malaysia (formally, Department of Museums and Antiquities). This has led the department to create a special extensive exhibition on Malaysian maritime archaeology which was initially planned to be only a temporary display. However, because of its popularity with museum visitors and its significance for understanding our maritime history, the exhibition has been continuously extended since its original opening in late 2001.
I am pleased to note that this is the third publication to be sponsored by the Department of Museums Malaysia. The first was a catalogue by Roxanna Brown and Sten Sjostrand entitled Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia (2002) for the maritime exhibition mentioned above. The second a summary of all work done with marine archaeology in Malaysia by Sten Sjostrand, Dato' Adi Haji Taha and Samsol Sahar. This third publication presents the entire Wanli (1625) shipwreck project and all its artefacts.
The Department of Museums has now worked together with Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sendirian Berhad on the excavation of two important sites, namely the Desaru wreck site and The Wanli Shipwreck site. In sharing the excavated artifacts, the department has always acquired the unique and rare items along with a selection of all the ceramic types discovered as per agreements. To date, more than twenty-two thousand artefacts are in our possession from these two wreck sites. Many of the items are now on display in the maritime exhibition together with artefacts from eleven other shipwreck sites which were previously excavated.
The publication of this book has two significant aspects. First, it contains a report on The Wanli Shipwreck excavation and a catalogue of the excavated artefacts to meet the terms of the agreement which was signed by Sten Sjostrand of Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sendirian Berhad. Second, it includes reports on subjects related to the project by the young staff of the department which testifies to their serious commitment to underwater archaeological research under the guidance of Sten Sjostrand.
Underwater archeology is an important research area because shipwrecks hold significant testimony to our past. A ship is a social, economic and administrative entity that reflects its historical time which froze with its sinking. It is thus significant for shipwrecks to be studied systematically and scientifically because of their immense heritage value. I believe this book will be a significant contribution to research on many aspects of maritime archaeology, especially in shipping technology, and on trade patterns and trade goods together with other historical facets.
I wish to express my appreciation to Sten Sjostrand and Sharifah Lok Lok for their unrelenting efforts in writing and supervising the production of the illustrations for this publication and to other staff of the department who participated in The Wanli Shipwreck project. The authors are to be commended for their serious commitment in presenting original research on the history of the ceramic industry of the period by making visits to Jingdezhen kiln sites and having sessions with ceramic experts in China.
Lastly, I trust the book will be well received by scholars and public alike and hope it will lead to further research on trade, trade ceramics, and underwater archaeology in the region.
Dato Dr. Adi Haji Taha