Treasure trove reveals origins of 800-year-old shipwreck discovered in the Java Sea
© The Field Museum
Now, researchers at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago have combined evidence to learn more about the ship's cargo and where it came from. Their study detailing the findings was published Wednesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Fishermen found the wreck in the 1980s. A cargo including thousands of ceramic pieces, cast iron and luxury trade goods, like elephant tusks and resin used for incense, is all that remains of the wreck after the wooden hull disintegrated. In 1996, when the wreck was recovered by archaeologists, they thought it might have been from the mid- to late 13th century, based on the dating of a single resin sample. It was most likely sailing from Quanzhou in southern China to Tuban on the island of Java. In the late 1990s, more than 7,500 pieces -- half the cargo -- was donated to the Field Museum. In 2014, an archaeologist with the museum, Lisa Niziolek, began corresponding with ceramic experts in China and Japan and discovered that some of the Java wreck ceramics were more similar to pieces made in the 11th and 12th century. That, combined with inscriptions suggesting that some of the pieces were "Made in Jianning Fu," brought up the question of more accurate dating. Niziolek and her colleagues Gary Feinman, Jun Kimura, Amanda Respess and Lu Zhang decided to submit more samples from the collection for a more precise method of radiometric dating called accelerated mass spectrometry. "Our findings place the sinking of the Java Sea Wreck vessel about 100 years earlier than initially thought -- closer to the second half of the twelfth century instead of the later thirteenth century," Niziolek and Feinman wrote in an email. Why is the difference of a hundred years so significant? During the 12th century, maritime trade was increasing and changing to more open economic trade, she said. "Consequently, the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279 CE) court encouraged Chinese traders to go abroad instead of relying on foreign missions traveling to China," Niziolek said. "This is also a time when competition between maritime societies of Southeast Asia heightened. The great empire of Srivijaya, which once controlled much of the maritime trade in the region, had fallen, leaving a vacuum for other polities to fill." The inclusion of those "Made in China"-esque inscriptions was key, she said. "Our new dataset also included research based on an inscription found on two ceramic box bases," Niziolek and Feinman said. "This inscription provides a place name, Jianning Fu, which was only assigned that name by the Song government from 1162 until 1278 CE, when it was changed to Jianning Lu by the Yuan dynasty."