The Wreck of the Royal Nanhai

Added over 6 years ago

By Linda Heaphy

royal nanhai cargo ship

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.

royal nanhai elelphant seal

Image of the royal elelphant 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. 

royal nanhai secret compartment

The location of the secret compartment under the lower deck;


vietnamese covered lacquerware box found on the royal nanhai

A 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 have been 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.

royal nanhai celadon bowl royal nanhai celadon jarlet   

Kashgar is proud to announce that several pieces from the Royal Nanhai have been made available for us to sell.  Our collection is currently modest and consists of two Celadon plates and six Celadon jarlets, however we look forward to expanding our collection with other pieces from both the Royal Nanhai and a later wreck, the Wanli which when excavated was found to contain a treasure trove cargo of Chinese Ming blue and white porcelain.  Stay tuned for further details and in the mean time, you can view our Royal Nanhai collection in our on-line catalog here.

Tags: 15th Century Celadon, Kashgar Articles, Royal Nanhai Celadon, Royal Nanhai Shipwreck, Shipwreck Porcelain, Southeast Asia


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