The Wanli Shipwreck was discovered six years after a large blue and white baluster jar was found in a trawler net in 1997. Disliking the overgrown and smelly piece, the fisherman kept it under his house until December 1999 when the writer noticed the jar and volunteered to clean it. Once it had a new interesting look, the owner decided to keep it. But a few months later the jar fell out of favour again, and the fisherman wanted to replace it with cash.
The search for the shipwreck site commenced with the fisherman onboard the Cadenza in an attempt to limit the search area. This was not very successful and, if anything, his testimony enlarged the search area rather than reduced it. It was obviously not easy to remember where he had actually trawled when he caught the pottery. The extended search area was far too large to warrant a detailed search unless a second source of information could be obtained. This turned up quite unexpectedly when another trawler caught similar pieces in a “precise” location that was obtained by GPS. Unfortunately, diving at the first suggested latitude and longitude numbers proved unsuccessful. Second and third attempts close by were equally disappointing, and the trawler captain started to mistrust his GPS unit.
However, after returning the fisherman to the shore and then taking time to plot the three dive sites, it become evident that they made a perfect triangle. A side-scan sonar was then lowered for a short run through the centre of the triangle. An undefined anomaly was seen in about the centre of the run, but the profile was very low, the acoustic returns weak and the outline did not resemble a shipwreck site. Yet, in order to remove it from records of potential sites, a diver descended to inspect the seabed. When he returned to the surface, he reported that the seabed was littered with blue and white porcelain!
At that time it seemed probable that the fisherman, who reported that he had caught many broken porcelain
pieces at the same time as the jar, had passed right over a shipwreck site. Single finds suggest that a fisherman has simply caught a pot that was already carried away from a wreck site by another trawler. Most fishermen throw away old pottery caught in their nets only after hours of trawling and miles away from the original site. However, the jar’s owner could identify his trawling area only vaguely by transit lines to shore and a small island. The possible area for the wreck covered more than 100 square miles of seabed. Since this was too large for even an exploratory search, the project was shelved.
A year later the same fisherman reported encountering more broken porcelain from a somewhat smaller trawling area. The long forgotten transit lines were by this time replaced with approximate longitude and latitudes from a Global Positioning System (GPS). Since the numbers only roughly outlined the trawler’s ordinary fishing ground, it was still a very large area to search. Nonetheless an application for searching the area was made to the Marine Department in March 2001 and again in 2002. Proximity to a submerged pile line required a special permit from the oil company in charge before the search permit was eventually issued in 2004.
During later excavation, it became clear why the initial sonar image was unconvincing. Only a small, shallow mound of pottery remained while broken porcelain was spread thinly out over a large area. This prevented the sonar from detecting the usual concentration of hard acoustic reflectors. Most of the pottery was buried under sand and mud. As expected, there was no sight of ship’s timber above the seabed. Exposed to water, the ship’s structure is eaten away by wood worms or rots over time.
Work with the recovered artefacts continued in a warehouse in Endau, State of Pahang, Malaysia where all objects were desalinated and given a final registration number. These artefacts have since been shared between Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd., the Malaysian based company responsible for the work, and Malaysia’s Department of Museums and Antiquities.
Research into the porcelain cargo continued during the whole year of 2004 and most of 2005 and it included visits to the kiln sites at Jingdezhen, China. Shards identical to porcelain from The Wanli Shipwreck were found at separate kiln sites.
Since then a number of The Wanli Shipwreck artefacts have been added to the Malaysian Maritime Archaeology Exhibition at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur where they fill the 17th century gap in its chronological display. The exhibition now includes artefacts from eleven different shipwrecks from the 11th though 19th centuries. With Chinese shipwreck wares from the 11th to 14th centuries and mostly Southeast Asian wares from hybrid Southeast Asian/Chinese wrecks from the 14th to 16th centuries, The Wanli Shipwreck and a later 19th century Chinese vessel. With these shipwreck cargoes Malaysia is now at the forefront of Southeast Asian maritime archaeology.
Tidal fluctuations between high and low tide are generally 2.3 meters and peak at 3.3 meters during springtide. For some unknown reason the site does not show the regular diurnal tidal flow that otherwise prevails in the South China Sea. There was therefore no predictable tidal current in the area during any of the working periods. The prevailing current on the site appears to be an ocean current mostly set in a direction of 150˚ during April through June. During September through November, the same current sets at 350˚.
The divers often reported encountering currents in two opposing directions at the same time. When descending they observed one current direction near the surface and then another directly opposing current on the bottom. At times there would be cross-currents mid-water as well.
Underwater visibility was unpredictable in both seasons and could change from absolute zero to four or five meters within one hour. During the excavation phase, 80% of all dives were made in near zero visibility; the remainder were made without any sight at all. The mapping phase provided slightly better conditions; only 40% of all dives were made in zero or near zero visibility. At other times the divers had four to five meters of free sight. Since the rapid changes in water clarity did not appear to correlate with shifting currents, it was assumed that they were associated with the piped seabed and the rivers’ depositing dirty water into the area.
Following approval to excavate the site, the project was divided into four phases. Each phase corresponded to the one rather short working period that falls between the monsoons. There are two such safe working periods a year. The phases were:
1.Pre-disturbance survey. The objective was to survey the site as it was found and then determine the best possible method for excavation. There also had to be decisions about what resources were needed when considering the fragile nature of the artefacts and of the general site condition. 2.Cargo removal and registration. Artefacts from within the wreck perimeter and outlying areas would be collected in order to establish a list and/or weight of the total cargo on the site, whether in form of intact or fragmented porcelain. The objects would be given registration numbers with information about their find locations. The removal of cargo would clear the site and prepare it for mapping. 3.Measure and map the remaining ship structure. This would be done in as much detail as the site and underwater visibility allowed.
4.Artefact care and documentation. Final onshore inventory of the recovered artefacts would be made while they were being conserved and preserved, and they would be researched in as much detail as possible. This final phase would also include the sharing of artefacts with the Malaysian government, as set out in the contract, before the publication of the findings.
The pre-disturbance survey and excavation of the site commenced in April 2004 and ended with most of the artefacts recovered by July the same year. Mapping of the site, which included the removal of ten tonnes of ballast rocks and the recovery of nine tonnes of porcelain shards, was carried out between September and November 2004. This was followed by yet another mapping phase, which obtained additional details, during April and May 2005. In the time between the diving periods, the registration, conservation, categorization of artefacts and related research commenced.
During three short exploratory dives, it became apparent that the site was extensively damaged by fishing trawlers. Broken porcelain littered the seabed and it was spread a long ways north and south of the site, a pattern that corresponded with the direction of trawling. Twenty-two pieces of pottery were collected from the surface layer and handed to the Malaysian Department of Museums and Antiquities in accordance with the Antiquities Act of 1976. Later research revealed that the samples appeared to be from the Jingdezhen kilns in China and belonged to the emperor Wanli (1573-1620) period. The project was thus named The Wanli Shipwreck.
The site is located about six nautical miles outside Tanjong Jara, off the coast of the State of Terengganu, on Peninsula Malaysia’s east coast. There are numbers of rivers on the mainland that deposit muddy water into the sea in this area. This deposit is particularly noticeable after heavy rainfall. The water depth at the wreck site is 40 meters, and the remains lay on the edge of a deeper trench that stretches a few miles in each direction. The seabed consists of mud mixed with sand,
which in isolated spots is granular and compacted into a concrete-hard substance that is difficult to penetrate. The surrounding seabed is otherwise ‘piped’ with the openings of fresh water tunnels from which fresh water flows after every rainfall.
Pre-disturbance survey phase
During one of the early exploratory dives, the site was video recorded to assist with future excavation and for reference. The video shows a highly disturbed wreck site with broken porcelain scattered over a large area. There was only one small area where partly organised stacks of smaller kraak plates could be seen. No ship’s timber was seen on the seabed surface at this time or during the later excavation and mapping phase.
On return to the site in April 2004 it appeared to be in the same condition as during the earlier inspection. Due to the amount and spread of broken pottery, it was difficult to establish any longitudinal direction of the ship. It was only after a number of dives, when surface pottery was cleared away, that the ship appeared to lay in a north to south direction. A reference line with attached number tags, one meter apart, was then pegged to the seabed in this direction. Number tag zero was in the north and number 19 in the south. It was then found that the heaviest concentration of porcelain started at tag number one and ended at tag number eight. South of this tag was a lighter concentration of fragmented porcelain which ended, mixed with hard concrete sand, at tag number 12. The entire stretch was then inspected and notes about special features drawn on a pre-disturbance plan. This was posted on the recovery boat for reference and for all divers’ pre-dive briefings and for their individual de-briefings.
After a transverse (east to west) reference line was pegged at tag number 16 and a narrow trench was dug alongside it, the end of the ship’s keel was found to the west of the centre line only 15 cms below the seabed. The centre reference line was relocated to this new position and the same search for a centre line was made in the north, at tag number zero. Here the end of the keel was found very near the reference line at a depth of 40 cms. After adjustment, it was found that the ship laid in a 025/205˚ direction. The bow or stern of the vessel could not be ascertained at the time.
With continued investigation of the surface layer along the numbered reference line and to the east and west, the extent of the damage to the ship and its cargo became more evident. To the north of tag zero, outside the end of the keel was a heavy concentration of broken porcelain. Its orientation and disorder suggested it was a spill-over that resulted from the ship’s collision with the seabed or displacement by fishing trawlers. To the south there was no concentration of porcelain after tag number 12 although it was clear that the ship stretched another few meters. Inside the length of 12 meters it was only around tag numbers four and five that a low ceramic mound was visible. Here were a few stacks of plates and bowls but they lay in different directions. Some of the stacks were turned over while others had been staggered sideways in an unusual manner. The rest of the ship’s outline was covered by porcelain shards lying among broken and intact porcelain pieces. A rather large quantity of small ballast rocks, mixed with porcelain, was scattered over the entire northern section. This was strange because ballast rocks would have been stored below the cargo, not above. Later excavation and mapping also revealed a large quantity of ballast rocks and porcelain shards below the remaining hull planks. In other words, there were ballast rocks above the porcelain cargo, below the porcelain and below the hull planks. Indeed an interesting shipwreck.
Cargo removal phase
Based on the findings during the pre-disturbance survey it was decided to excavate the ship from the north, proceeding one meter at the time, emptying the ship transversally. To guide the divers in limited or zero underwater visibility, in situ references were needed so that recovered material could be properly registered and later plotted to specific locations. It was decided not to use grid lines pegged to the seabed because, in low visibility, it was more than likely the lines would be accidentally dislocated by the divers. Instead dive teams would place recovery baskets transversally along each meter of the ship’s length as a guide for recovery. Baskets were thus placed along the site, one meter apart, when visibility allowed. Divers were able to position themselves, for excavation and later mapping, in the correct location by descending at three known down-line reference points and then feeling their way to their working area where the baskets were in place. Concrete blocks were placed on the seabed at the three fixed descent points. The divers felt their way from the blocks to the baskets in order to excavate a precise assigned area. When underwater visibility sporadically improved, the progress of the recovery was visually checked and if necessary corrected. After clearing an area and placing the artefacts in padded baskets and after visual confirmation that all artefacts that would be registered were collected, the area was deemed emptied. Divers thereafter scooped up whatever shards and fragments remained into separate steel baskets.
Thus the excavation work proceeded south one meter at a time throughout the wreck site. Along the 15-meter keel length, it was clear that the heaviest concentration of intact and semi-intact ceramics was limited to the northern-most eight meters. South of this area most ceramics were either broken or fragmented, and anything south of meter eight was fragmented or pulverised. In addition to large quantities of porcelain pieces in the north, other large quantities of broken ceramics were found well outside the perimeter on the ship’s eastern side. Much of this outlying cargo was buried deeper into the seabed.
The pattern of intact and semi-intact ceramics to the north, broken pieces in the mid-ship section and mostly fragmented or pulverised ceramics in the south matched the condition of the remaining hull structure. There were markedly more hull planks and frames to the north than in the southern section of the site.
Two iron cannons were found just outside the wreck’s western perimeter. The cannons were discovered after the ship’s cargo had been removed and the depth of the site increased. Very few other non-ceramic artefacts were found and they mostly comprised various bronze objects that were usually broken or bent out of shape. These bronze objects were scattered across the entire site and sometimes lie a long ways outside the ship’s perimeter.
Due to the shallow depth of the site, which never exceeded 0.4 meters, there was no need for excavation tools. The mass of broken porcelain, for instance, would have jammed a conventional water dredge. The small size ballast rock would likewise jam any suction device that might otherwise have been employed. By the time the ceramic cargo had been recovered and the shards scooped up, only ballast rocks appeared to remain on the ship’s hull planks. These rocks, which covered only the northern part of the site, were recovered and/or removed during the mapping phase before measuring the remains of the ship’s structure.
All recovered artefacts were registered at the time of surfacing on the recovery vessel. The series number allocated to each artefact provides a means to retrace its recovery location within the excavation. Following the recovery of artefacts that could be individually registered, another 9,083 kilos of shards were collected from inside and outside the wreck outline.
Artefact registration and handling
Due to the vast amount of broken porcelain it was decided to register only pieces that were intact or retained 51% of the original form. With thousands of pieces that were about 50% intact, it was feared that a single object might otherwise be registered twice. Therefore, any piece that was less then 51% intact was counted as a shard. These ‘shards’ were later sorted into respective types and weighed. The total weight of each type was then divided by the weight of an intact example to find out how many whole pieces were represented.
Registered artefacts were categorised and numbered as they arrived on deck of the recovery vessel. To simplify the typology and to allow all divers to assist with artefact registration, each new type found was given a type number in order of surfacing. The artefact photographs and a brief description of each type were added to an onboard artefact description file. As each artefact was registered, its recovery location was also noted in the onboard registration book. This system of recording the find spot of each artefact had proved successful in previous shipwreck excavations and greatly assists with later artefact work.
Representatives of the Department of Museums and Antiquities confirmed each registration by signing the registration book after each day’s recovery. Once checked, the artefacts were packed in foam into bundles, and each bundle was marked with its content, ceramic types, quantity and artefact location. The bundles were then placed in numbered boxes, and the box number and content were noted in the onboard registration book. Each box was then sealed and stamped by the Museum staff before it was slipped into plastic bags for storage onboard a separate vessel.
As the boxes were transferred to the support vessel, each box was counterchecked and recorded
as having been transferred. During later off-loading in Endau harbour, each box was checked against
the records to ensure that all material was safely sent to the storage facility ashore. Once all boxes
were accounted for, the entire bundle of artefact boxes was sealed into one large package to await final
During December 2004 the artefact boxes were opened in the presence of staff from the Department of Museums and Antiquities. At this time each box and box numbers were checked against the registration book. After initial washing, a sticker with the proper individual serial number was attached to each artefact. The numbers had been assigned during excavation at sea. A final artefact list including all individual objects was handed to the Department of Museums and Antiquities together with the draft of this report in April 2006.
With this registration and storage system, it was possible to refer to the onboard registration book and to countercheck the exact content of each box before it was opened at a later date for cleaning, conservation and final registration. It was also possible to check every artefact, its location, its packing, transfers and final arrival at the storage facility. With this system for tracking, it can be confirmed that all the artefacts recovered did arrive safely ashore. There were in fact a few extra artefacts, not registered at the time of recovery, as they had been put aside for further study and had not been packed in the boxes.
Mapping and recording phase
The necessary break between safe diving periods caused by the two opposing monsoon seasons is always a problem with shipwreck excavations in the South China Sea. This time it separated the recovery and mapping phases. Fishing trawlers unaware of the actual location of a shipwreck prior to excavation are able to obtain the exact position during the excavation phase when the recovery vessel is anchored at the site. During the monsoon break when diving is difficult or dangerous, the fishermen return and trawl right over the site in hope of finding a better catch. Although damage to the Wanli ship between the excavation phase and mapping was far less than that on the previously excavated Desaru shipwreck, planks were found missing or dislocated when the team returned in September 2004 for detailed measurements and mapping. This damage was limited to the northern part where some of the ship’s timber had been dislocated. Video recordings, which were made when underwater visibility allowed during the recovery phase, greatly assisted in relocating the dislodged planks.
Site conditions during the mapping phase were mixed. Currents remained unpredictable, although during this time of the year it set mostly at 350˚. While the underwater visibility was somewhat improved, strong winds and frequent squalls interfered with the work because anchors had to be relocated to face opposing wind directions. More important, the better visibility meant that the divers could see what was to be measured about 50% of the time. During other times, when visibility dropped to near or absolute zero, the divers removed ballast rocks.
Before any measuring was done, new reference numbers were nailed to the keel, one meter apart. In contrast to the recovery phase, these numbers started in the south with zero and ended in the north with 15. These are the in situ meter numbers (M) referred to in the remainder of this report. Removal of scattered ballast rocks and remaining porcelain shards commenced in the south and proceeded northward. Once the first few meters of the site were cleaned, measuring work began in the south as cleaning of the hull continued north.
All ballast rocks from the southern area were lifted to the surface in baskets. This system of removal
was deemed more efficient when rocks were collected from a larger area. With the denser mass of
rocks farther north, it became more efficient to collect the rocks in smaller baskets and ‘swim’ to the
outside of the wreck perimeter. At M9 and all the way to the north there was a marked increase
of ballast rocks; it is believed that this area was once fully ballasted. Most of the rocks laying in the
outer port side of the wreck, between M9 and M13, were left in situ since that section of structure
would match that of the starboard side. It was estimated that ten tonnes of smaller size ballast
rocks had been onboard the ship. In the early parts of the 18th century such small size rocks, which made an even base for the cargo, were commonly scooped up from the bottom of the river in Macao and delivered to the ships in Guangzhou by small sampans.
Despite careful checking during the recovery operations, a few short stacks of porcelain plates were found below the rocks, near the keel, in the denser area of ballast. In this section, at west M11 - M12, the plates were completely covered by ballast rocks. This was a surprise since ceramics are normally found above the ballast. It is difficult to explain how these plates ended up, neatly stored, below the level of ballast. Perhaps a once higher ballast compartment existed longitudinally over the keel. Stacks of plates might have been stored on the hull planks next to this compartment. When the sides of this ballast compartment were destroyed or rotted away, the rocks would then have spilled out over the stacks of plates. There was, however, no sign of a longitudinal ballast compartment, only a concentration of ballast stones over the keel that might support the idea of such construction. An alternative but less likely possibility is that the ship rolled over before settling on the bottom mixing ceramics with ballast rocks in an unpredictable manner.
When the ballast rocks were removed, frames and stringers were found to be loose and not attached to the ship’s structure. All the iron nails that once secured the stringers to the frames and the frames to the hull had corroded. To prevent further dislodging of these structural members, it was necessary to nail them down anew. This proved to be more difficult than anticipated because of the ‘soggy’ nature of the hull planks. Many of the nails could be pushed in by hand and all of them had to be angled at 45° degrees to prevent the pieces from floating away in the current. More than six kilos of six-inch nails were used for this purpose.
to support vessel
Two divers, both experienced in the architectural measuring of sunken ships, were engaged to record all structural details. These divers concentrated on one transverse section between the frames at a time, and did not proceed until all measurements of hull planks, frames, stringers, rabbets, thicknesses, angles and profiles were recorded. These measurements were then transferred onto draft drawings onboard the recovery vessel where progress and the completeness of the measurements could be monitored. If some measurements were missing or insufficient, the divers returned to make additional ones. Once a section of draft sketches was completed, the divers proceeded to the next transverse section and repeated the procedure. This system allowed a constant check on measurements, which needed to line-up with those from the previous section. Happily, there was no distortion of structures in individual sections when the measurements were finalised. The final sketches made from these draft references, cross checked when possible, sometimes with video footage, are shown on page XX and other pages in this section.
When underwater visibility allowed, all structures were video recorded for cross reference. This was
however not very successful because limited visibility did not allow recording at any distance.
Most video recordings are limited to close-up detail. Only on two occasions was it possible, without
light, to make an overall recording of larger sections of the wreck site. Photographic
recording was equally disappointing since the low light conditions did not allow quality images.
When a flash was added, the light bounced off waterborne particles so that most underwater pictures
were overexposed or did not show details. To ensure that all divers were aware of each other’s
work and to prevent damage to the weak structure, each diver was required to de-brief all the others
after every dive. This process of briefing, recording, checking and transferring of measurements to
onboard draft sketches continued throughout the entire period of the mapping phase.
Cargo" may be included at a later date. These parts include:
Remaining (ship) structures: Keelson, Keel, Stern keel architecture, Stem post, Frames, futtocks and stringers, Mast step.
The cause of sinking
Ships and shipbuilding
Principal wreck arrangement
The kraak porcelain cargo
The Wanli shipwreck ceramics
Matching ceramics found in Jingdezhen, China
Conservation and restoration
Dating the shipwreck site
Summary of the ceramic cargo
Diving (the site)
In addition to this Archaeology section, there are other sections devoted to the historical and technical developments at Jingdezhen, the "Porcelain Center of the World". This is followed by a full Ceramic catalogue including all types of pottery found on the wreck site. Other sections deal with the interpretation of Marks and inscriptions as well as the meaning of the painted motifs on the borders and centre medallions. There is also an elaborate End note section, appendixes etc. etc.
To view or to order the full catalogue: "The Wanli Shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo," go to: Publications
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The Wanli Shipwreck.com
Extracts from the Archaeology section of the catalogue: "The Wanli shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo". This site also offers antique Chinese porcelain and other Asian antiques
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Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd
Extracts from the Archaeology section of: "The Wanli Shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo"
Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd.
Kuala Rompin. Malaysia.
Copyright: (C) Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd. 2010
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Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd. was incorporated on the recommendation of the Malaysian authorities. This was done in order to formalize and to expand on the founder’s extensive knowledge of Asia’s ceramic developments and maritime trade. The company’s researchers have been engaged in the search for historical shipwrecks for more than two decades and another decade researching maritime trade. Most of this work is concentrated to the South China Sea, a virtual highway for ancient shipping linking China to India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia in an extensive maritime trade system. This ancient trade started sometime around the 4th century and lasted well into the 19th century.
Following a successful shipwreck discovery, the company obtain a government permit to excavate the wreckage, and then carry out detailed marine archaeological procedures in recovering the artifacts, mapping the ship's remains and securing other data for future research. After each concluded project and following conservation of recovered artifacts, we search for and pinpoint ruined kiln sites and compare its wasters with the recovered ceramics until we are satisfied we located the place in which the shipwreck pottery was made centuries earlier.
Our arrangement with the Malaysian authorities is such that we finance all operations and train young Malaysian nationals (on our initiative) in maritime archaeology and related research. After giving all unique and single artifacts and thirty percent of all recovered items to the National Museum (and assisting with exhibitions of artifacts from eachhttp://www.mingwrecks.com/of reports, books and catalogues are available on these pages as well as on a separate Internet site.
The artifacts sold on this website are therefore legally and properly excavated and can be supplied with an export permit from the Department of Museum in Malaysia should this be required. This unique working arrangement makes us one of the few Internet sellers that sell from own excavation and deliver a meaningful Certificate of Authenticity for every artifact with a serial number. So, if you are interested to purchase some of our Chinese porcelain and other shipwreck artifacts from the Song dynasty, Ming dynasty, or 19th century Qing porcelain or the famous Yixing teapots, you can rest assured that every piece is excavated through proper archaeology by our own staff. We do not sell anything that is not excavated by ourselves or properly recorded and researched before offered for sale so every piece comes with the “Best possible provenance” WE ENCOURAGE YOU TO EMAIL OUR PRINCIPAL RESEARCHER; Sten Sjostrand SHOULD YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR POSSIBLE PURCHASE
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