The Xuande Shipwreck (ca. 1540)

The Xuande site was found in 1996, some 60 nautical miles from the Terengganu coast. It is proposed that a small barge was carrying out a task for China’s Emperor before it went down. “Six porcelain items recovered from the sunken barge were with markings of Emperor Xuande, who ruled from 1425 to 1436,” according to Sten Sjostrand, who discovered and named the site. “We also found porcelain items believed to be made in the 16th century.”

The most unusual thing about this site is that it did not have any remains of a ship’s structure. The “wrecksite” is located 30 nautical miles north of the island of Pulau Tioman, Malaysia and in 53 meters of water.

While the outline of the finds produced an acoustic image of a seagoing vessel, approximately 28 x 8 meters in size, on site investigation did not produced any evidence of timber. Scattered ceramics on the surface of the seabed outlined the shape of a wreck but the finds extended only a few inches into the muddy sea floor. Despite extensive scanning, no wood fragments were found.

The ceramics recovered from this site include examples of at least 20 different designs of Chinese ware, along with some Thai pieces, and the age of the 250 recovered pieces is controversial.

The ceramics recovered include Chinese blue and white porcelain and monochrome white-glazed wares, Sisatchanalai celadon and underglaze black decorated wares, as well as Sukhothai underglaze black decorated bowls. Seven of the Chinese pieces display the reign mark of the emperor Xuande. These pieces were probably made after the end of that reign, however, sometime in the late 15th century or mid 16th century. The Sukhothai samples, with “solar whorl” motifs, tend to confirm this later date. The whorl design is believed to belong to the later years of the Sukhothai kilns

It was therefore concluded that the ship sunk in the middle of the 16th century but carried a few ceramics that were already old. The find lends some evidence for the concept of an early trade in antique ceramics.