The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History will be available via subscription on April 26. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, learn about subscriber services.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, ASIAN HISTORY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 24 March 2019

Ships, Shipwrecks, and Archaeological Recoveries as Sources of Southeast Asian History

Summary and Keywords

Ships form a critical component of the study of Southeast Asia’s interaction both within itself as well as with the major centers of Asia and the West. Shipwreck data, accrued from archaeologically excavated shipwreck sites, provide information on the evolving maritime traditions that traversed Southeast Asian waters over the last two millennia, including shipbuilding and navigational technologies and knowledge, usage of construction materials and techniques, types of commodities carried by the shipping networks, shipping passages developed through Southeast Asia, and the key ports of call that vessels would arrive at as part of the network of economic and social exchanges that came to characterize maritime interactions.

Keywords: Southeast Asia, shipwrecks, hull construction, trade routes, underwater cultural heritage, maritime Asia

Archaeology in Southeast Asian History

The history of Southeast Asia, particularly its pre-modern international history, has, up until the last five decades, primarily been driven by textual sources. Colonial period scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries has primarily relied on the oral and written traditions of Southeast Asia and been driven by written sources from civilizational cultures that had historic contacts and interactions with Southeast Asia. These included the civilizational influences of the processes of Indianization, Sinicization, and Islamization through the course of the last two millennia, informed by Western perspectives of European colonial expansion in Southeast Asia during the 16th through the early 20th centuries. This body of scholarship has been reliant primarily on Chinese, Middle Eastern, and South Asian sources. These include the works of such scholars as W. P. Groeneveldt, Paul Pelliot, and Ronald Braddell, to name but a few.1

By the mid-20th century, while archaeological and art historical studies had already begun to exist on the study of parts of Southeast Asia, particularly those under French colonial control, these studies were focused on such topics as monumental architecture, plastic fine arts, and their correlation to Indic cosmological precepts and mythology. These studies, apart from being based on Southeast Asian materials, derived their narratives through the supplementation of non–Southeast Asian textual sources, including the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata, and to a lesser extent the Buddhist Jatakas.2

It was not until the post–World War Two period and the ensuing decolonization that took place that Southeast Asian history began to take on an indigenously driven impetus. The drive to develop autonomous histories by Southeast Asian states led not only to nationalist histories being written during this period but also narratives of the historical origins of the respective nation-states, or deep national histories.

By the 1970s and 1980s, archaeological data and art historical methods of analysis were used to supplement, and often to counter, the textually derived narratives articulating that Southeast Asian societies had historically been buffeted by the influences of external civilizational cultures. The drive to write deep histories of Southeast Asia created the need to generate indigenous historical data. The absence, or paucity, of textual or epigraphic materials, particularly for the non–agrarian-based societies and cultures of Southeast Asia, meant that archaeology also provided the opportunity for delving into aspects of Southeast Asia’s past that were not well documented in texts.3 These included urban settlement patterns, material consumption patterns, more secure dating of human activities, trade networks and linkages, and social demographics, to name but a few. These aspects of Southeast Asian social history in particular coincided with developments in the discipline of archaeology. A more integrative approach to archaeological research, looking at all aspects of a society’s experiences and activities, was being developed as part of a holistic approach to archaeological research.4

By the 1990s, marine archaeology had begun to develop in full swing in Southeast Asia. Maritime archaeological projects had commenced as early as the 1980s with projects carried out in Thailand conducted in collaboration with the Western Australia Maritime Museum.5 At the same time, the Philippines had also begun to conduct projects within its exclusive maritime economic zone.6 These sustained efforts were furthered by the establishment of the international legal frameworks for the protection and research of underwater heritage and resources from the 1980s onward, which made marine archaeological research much more viable for nation-states to conduct. These included the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982), which was ratified by sixty countries and came into force in 1994.7

To date, all the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, with the exception of landlocked Laos, presently have archaeological research centers, with contribution augmenting and at times opening up research lines of enquiry into the region’s maritime past. This critical mass of research expertise in Southeast Asia, as well as the urgency to incorporate maritime cultural heritage and maritime archaeology as part of the historical narratives of the respective Southeast Asian countries, has resulted in varying degrees of state support for maritime archaeology. Full state support may be found in the case of Thailand and more recently Singapore, the latter due primarily to security concerns and the busyness of the shipping lanes around the waters of Singapore Island. Other Southeast Asian countries have adopted the model of shipwreck excavations being driven primarily by licensed private enterprises, with the state having varying degrees of participation. The Philippines and Malaysia have a fairly high level of state participation in shipwreck excavations, while Indonesia’s experience has been fairly varied. State involvement in such excavations remains minimal in the case of Myanmar and Cambodia.

Concurrently, scholarly exchanges within Southeast Asia as well as discussions on the best practices of maritime cultural heritage preservation relevant to the unique context that Southeast Asian countries presently face have been taking place.8 Together, the contributions of the state-sponsored centers and departments, private licensed excavators, and various cultural societies have been contributing to the ever-expanding corpus of archaeological knowledge and data that historical research on Southeast Asia can tap into.

Maritime archaeology in Southeast Asia is not without its challenges. One of the most critical challenges pertains to funding and field expertise. Specifically concerning shipwreck excavations in the sea, such research endeavors must adhere to very specific field seasons determined by the monsoon patterns of Southeast Asia and the local waters. The equipment and personnel expertise required, in the form of qualified divers, for conducting expeditions are unique and scarce, and ultimately the costs involved in such endeavors can be prohibitive. Shipwreck excavations in particular tend to be much shorter than land excavations, simply because of the sheer amount of materials to be recovered and the relatively short period of time when the volatility of the sea due to the movement of the seabed and waters around it remains relatively low.

Consequently, the high cost of conducting maritime excavations, and the low funding priority that many regional governments give to underwater cultural heritage preservation, has resulted in the need for private–public partnership programs so as to facilitate these excavations. Such arrangements, particularly when the final sale of the excavated cargo is involved in order to at least mitigate the cost of the excavations, with the possibility of some profitability, has led to questions being raised about the ethics of such excavations and the management of maritime cultural heritage resources in general in Southeast Asia. This state of affairs has been exacerbated by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001). The convention stipulates the preservation of underwater cultural heritage sites and their accompanying artefacts and, in the case of shipwreck sites in particular, the prohibition of the salvage and sale of a shipwreck’s contents in order to ensure that the heritage sites and their accompanying materials are preserved for future generations in their in situ form. Models of public–private partnership in maritime excavations, where the sale of the recovered finds constitutes a critical component of the project’s funding, has been seen as contravening the articles of the convention.9 The convention also does not address the very real issue of looting of these sites by fishermen as a threat contributing to the destruction of these cultural heritage sites. To date, only one Southeast Asian country—Cambodia—is presently signatory to the convention.10

A more recent challenge, which has emerged since 2010, pertains to issues of territoriality. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have amplified nationalist sentiments that have, to a large extent, impeded Southeast Asian countries from being able to freely conduct research into shipwrecks and wreck sites in many parts of what had previously been understood as the respective exclusive economic zones of these countries, but which now is in dispute among various claimants in Southeast Asia and with China and Taiwan. The result has been a slowing down of the rate at which wreck sites are being scientifically excavated, particularly in the maritime areas north and west of the Philippines, north of Borneo Island, and east of North Vietnam, where the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and Paracels are located respectively. At present, only excavations within undisputed exclusive territorial waters of Southeast Asian countries have continued.11

The Maritime Zone of Southeast Asia and the Culture of Navigation

Southeast Asia as a geographical and cultural region may be divided into three key zones. The first would be the highland or upland zone, comprising such areas as the Barisan mountain range in Sumatra, the highland spine of the Malay Peninsula, and the northeast hill land area of Mainland Southeast Asia, to name but a few. The geographical location places the groups that occupy this zone as self-sufficient to a large extent, with distinct agricultural practices, and even languages that are not necessarily intelligible to those of the lowland and coastal areas of Southeast Asia.

The second zone is the lowland zone. Often denoted as the riparian environment, this zone comprises lands between the sea and the highland slopes and can range from narrow strips of coastal land, such as along the Isthmus of Kra and South Kedah, to deep swaths of flatlands extending significant distances inland, including the Red River Delta, the Mekong Delta, and Musi River Basin. The lands in this zone are often productive agrarian lands and have historically been exploited for the production of cereal grains, supporting large population bases. These lowlands are also often connected to their respective highlands by river systems that run across the two zones, displacing into the sea. While the ethnic groups that occupy the two zones are distinct due to the geographical contexts in which they exist, they are often in interaction, developing relationships that would enable the obtaining of products and goods that are not available in their own respective geographical zones.12

The third zone is the maritime zone. This zone comprises the coastline and seas of Southeast Asia. The key difference from the riparian environment of the lowland zone is in its flora and fauna as well as the natural environment, in that the absence of land, the swaths of mangrove forests that bound the numerous islands of Southeast Asia, and the open waters form an ecological and geographical context that differs significantly from the other two zones mentioned above. This uniqueness has led to the development of cultural traits among groups that inhabit this zone that differ significantly from those of the other two zones.13

While from a population standpoint, the maritime zone may be the least occupied and most transient, it is also perhaps the most important in tying Southeast Asia together as a coherent geographical and cultural entity. Southeast Asia as a region is primarily characterized as an archipelagic region, comprising thousands of islands that together form a tightly interconnected network of maritime landforms. The maritime zone, therefore, has functioned not so much as a barrier to communication but rather as a conduit of exchange and interaction across Southeast Asia, linking coastal areas and riparian zones together and, by extension, the highland zone as well.14

In addition, the maritime zone of Southeast Asia has served as the nexus between the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and East Java Sea, linking several civilizations across Maritime Asia. Apart from the overland route across Central Asia, commonly known as the Silk Road, the seas in Southeast Asia link the northeast Asian cultures of China, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula with the Indic cultures of South Asia, the Middle Eastern cultures of the Mesopotamian region, and the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean world.15

The result has been that navigational technology and seafaring knowledge has been an integral aspect of Southeast Asia’s culture for millennia. Maritime technology, essential for the successful navigation of riverine systems that enabled interaction between the highland, riparian, and maritime zones, developed very early on in Southeast Asian history. At the same time, vessels and geographical knowledge for the successful navigation of the seas and coasts of Southeast Asia also developed in tandem. Given the destructive environmental conditions of the tropics, physical evidence of riverine and maritime technology has, to date, appeared fairly late. The earliest known remains of an indigenous vessel, excavated at Pontian, date to the 1st century ce through ceramic typology, but to the 3rd to 5th centuries ce through radiocarbon dating.16 Other remains include the Butuan wreck (Mindanao, c. 3rd to 5th centuries ce), Kolam Pinisi wreck (Sumatra, c. 5th to 7th centuries ce), Sambirejo wreck (Sumatra, c. 7th to 8th centuries ce), and Paya Pasir (Sumatra, c. 12th to 14th centuries).17 Consequently, evidence of riverine shipbuilding technology, and the nature of riverine vessels, has to date relied primarily on ethnographic studies of the 19th and 20th centuries.18

One of the earliest non–ship-based evidences of such Southeast Asian ships comes from a bas relief on the Buddhist stupa Borobudur. Dated to the 9th century, the bas relief depicts a seagoing vessel with an outrigger and sails, similar to vessels of the Austronesian tradition. Indeed, Austronesian seafaring in Southeast Asia has been regarded by anthropologists as a phenomenon that began as early as the 10th millennium bce, when migration of Austronesians into many of the coastal parts of Southeast Asia from littoral South China and Taiwan began to occur.19 The continued use of the outrigger in Island Southeast Asia as a component for stability, as depicted in the Borobudur relief, suggest that while the region has been a diverse place, in the area of navigation there has been a tendency for a single coherent cultural sphere, in terms of the technology utilized, to remain. It is important to note, however, that the known large Southeast Asian wrecks have so far been absent of outriggers, suggesting that this may be a component in the visual articulation of a maritime cultural sphere rather than an actual component built as part of a seagoing vessel.

Nonetheless, this coherent shipbuilding cultural sphere, evident in the small crafts that continue to be constructed and used in Southeast Asia now, is evident in shipbuilding techniques utilized in the construction of seagoing vessels as well. At its essence, this has been made manifest by the joinery and fastening techniques employed. Herein, shipbuilders of the region have continued to utilize the dowel-peg system of joinery for the hull planks, in which the vessel is secured through a series of peg holes drilled into wooden boards forming the members of the hull and fastened together using wooden pegs. These members are then held together by the use of ropes lashed onto protruding lugs that have been carved from the inner side of the wooden hull planks, thereby forming the frame of the hull. This technique is known as the “lashed-lug” technique. Paperbark is often used as luting between hull planks. Once the vessel, initially constructed on land, is launched onto water, the fibrous parts would expand, causing the vessel to become watertight and tightly locked. Some of the earliest examples of such construction techniques may be seen in the Pontian and Sambirejo wrecks, both of which were likely riverine vessels that could be utilized to skirt the coast line, and the Chau Tan (late 8th century ce) and Cirebon (10th century ce) wrecks, both seagoing vessels that were carrying an international cargo when they foundered.20

Shipwrecks and Southeast Asia’s Interactions with the Maritime World

Shipwrecks in Southeast Asia represent one of the most vital sources of information on the sea-borne interactions that the region maintained not just within Southeast Asia but with outside regions as well. Southeast Asia’s importance, both as a region famous for its products and as a transhipment zone between the key markets of continental and littoral Asia, may be seen in the historical records of different cultural traditions. Indian accounts, as early as the 5th-century Ramayana and Mahabharata, denote Southeast Asia as the Land of Gold, or Suvarnabhumi.21 By the late 1st millennium bce and the early 1st millennium ce, port cities in the region, such as Oc-Eo in modern-day South Vietnam and Takuapa and Khao Sam Kheo on the west and east coast of the Isthmus of Kra, respectively, were transhipping products from the east, including Chinese ceramics, Southeast Asian products such as earthen ware ceramics, and products from the west, including glass beads from the Indian subcontinent, carnelian from the Indus region, and gold coins and amphora from the Roman world.22 By the second half of the 1st millennium ce, the various dynastic courts of China had begun to maintain records of the diplomatic and commercial contacts between itself and the polities of Southeast Asia.23

The presence of items of foreign origin at Southeast Asia’s port cities indicates that these items were brought to the region either by Southeast Asian or foreign ships, or both. For Southeast Asia, foreign ships represent the other leg of maritime navigation that traversed Southeast Asian waters throughout history. Foreign shipping, however, unlike Southeast Asian shipping, did exhibit ebbs and flows both in intensity and volume, as well as variations in the places from which these foreign vessels originated. In this regard, the presence of foreign shipping in Southeast Asia was largely dependent on the context of the place of origin at any given point in time. These included policies on international trades, the development of technologies relevant to foreign markets, including changes in production and manufacturing methods and the products manufactured, political developments and geo-political disruptions, and the development of market economies, to name but a few. Any such changes would have caused trade, as well as other related activities such as diplomatic, military, and territorial reach, to fluctuate.24 The footprint of the shipping network from a specific foreign region in question would have receded or increased in Southeast Asia accordingly.

As an example, whenever China’s imperial court instituted maritime prohibitions, the volume of Chinese shipping operating in Southeast Asia, its nearest foreign economic partner, would decline drastically. Chinese shipping, for example, did not appear to exist during the Tang (618–904) and early Song (960–1278) periods (7th to the late 11th centuries). During the mid-15th to early 16th centuries under the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when a maritime ban was imposed, the shipping knowledge that was developed during the late 11th through the 14th centuries under the Song and Yuan dynasties declined, as did the vessels built in China. Similarly, for the first hundred years following the inception of the Qing dynasty (1644–1910), Chinese shipping decline dramatically even though Chinese shipping had rebounded after the Ming maritime ban was lifted in the 16th century.25 Similarly, the fall of the Sassanid court in Persia to the Damascus-based Umayyad caliphate in the 630s, followed by the takeover of the caliphate by the Abbasids in 750, led to Middle Eastern shipping fielded by the Persians initially declining in the 7th century, followed by a resurgence in shipping by the Arabs in 750 after the caliphate’s capital was established at Baghdad near the Persian Gulf.26

At the same time, changes in Southeast Asia itself, including the nature of trade, the shifts in demand and supply of products both for the region’s markets as well as abroad, geo-political developments that either led to the consolidation or dispersal of population bases in the riparian zone, and the rise or decline of efforts at consolidating shipping capabilities and port city functions, affected both Southeast Asian and foreign shipping.

The cargo of shipwrecks also provides information on the large-scale or industrial production of the hinterlands of the port cities at which these vessels, and the shipping networks they represented, called. These would include Southeast Asian products, including camphor, gharuwood, and other such nature products, glass and ceramics from the Middle East, and metal and ceramic products from China, to name but a few of the items recovered from shipwrecks in the region.

Similarly, data from shipwreck cargo could shed light on the manner in which economies across regions interacted with each other. Trade across the seas could occur in two basic forms—the exchange of products as finished items consumed by the recipient markets as such, or the export and import of products as primary materials or partially finished items, to be processed or worked upon by the recipient markets into finished items. In this regard, the cargo data provide us with information as to whether the shipping reflected vertical economic integration of regional economies or mutual trade between relatively self-sufficient regional economies.27

Finally, the data from the cargo of shipwrecks, when referenced with the archaeological data accrued at port settlement sites, provide crucial information on the nature of shipping flowing through Southeast Asia, be it transhipment, market demand and supply of end products, or transitory shipping. As such, the objectives for the conduct of international trade affected the nature of a particular shipping network in a nexus region like Southeast Asia. When international trade involved transitory trans-oceanic shipment of goods from one terminal market, such as China, to another, such as Europe, Southeast Asia would primarily be a transitory zone. While the volume of that particular shipping network through Southeast Asia may be voluminous, the length of time that the ships would spend in Southeast Asia, and their scope of commercial operations in the region, would be relatively minimal. This pattern of shipping was most evident during the early modern era, when European East India companies and the Spaniards across the Pacific purveyed a trade that saw the West acquiring goods primarily from China and to a lesser degree from Japan and Southeast Asia in exchange for western goods such as woolen textiles and silver bullion.28 A similar pattern of trade may be seen in specific wrecks of the pre-modern era, including the Belitung wreck (c. 830s), which appears to be reflective of a Middle Eastern shipping network that operated out of the west Indian Ocean littoral and which operated a terminus to terminus trans-oceanic trade.29

On the other hand, if the objective of a shipping network was to develop commercial operations in a zone, then Southeast Asia, if it were that zone, would become a sphere of operation in its own right. The pattern of shipping under these circumstances would see vessels display a regional trade pattern that often involved the carrying of cargoes from diverse points of origins, reflecting a circulatory, as opposed to a transitory, trade. Wrecks that typified such a shipping pattern would include the Phanom Surin (8th century) and Turiang (14th century) wrecks,30 although Southeast Asian vessels that operated on such a circulatory trading basis, such as the Intan Wreck (early 10th century), would also exhibit similar cargoes.

Finally, it is possible to utilize shipwreck data to postulate the relative ebbs and flows of shipping networks that traversed and operated in Southeast Asia. While this is still in the preliminary stage, the identification of the shipbuilding traditions of the wrecks in Southeast Asia as a geographical information survey would allow scholars to chart the chronology and comparative volumes of shipping in the region and the peaks and declines of specific shipping networks over the course of time.

Shipwrecks as Records of Navigational Knowledge

Shipwrecks differ from other economic sources of data in several ways. Textual sources in general provide valuable information of the overall structures and economic exchange between Southeast Asia and regions beyond. Often these sources are also the only information that may be available on certain types of goods traded, including organic and perishable materials. For the pre-modern era, however, textual sources tend in general to be lacking in quantitative data, which make any reconstruction of the relative volumes of trade, either of products traded or of the tonnage of shipping purveyed, almost impossible. This problem is assuaged as we get to the early modern era, when customs records maintained by the administrators of port cities in Southeast Asia, and in Maritime Asia as a whole, become much more systematic and comprehensive from the 16th century onward, and of which we still possess extant copies.31

On the other hand, land excavation data, particularly those of port cities in Southeast Asia, provide us with very detailed information of the range of imperishable products imported into Southeast Asia from external regions. These comprise primarily ceramics and metals. The data present two issues. First, inorganic products traded are the predominant artefacts in the archaeological record, as the tropical conditions of Southeast Asia’s maritime zone led to the complete destruction of any organic material remains, perhaps with the exception of fauna bone remains and floral pollen. The picture that land excavation data reflect is therefore often partial. Second, land settlement remains reflect the detritus of human consumption patterns and, as such, only partially reflect the nature of goods shipped into, through, and within Southeast Asia.32

Shipwreck excavations provide a different form of archaeological data for the study of Southeast Asia’s economic interaction both within itself and with neighboring regions. Data from shipwrecks reflect the patterns and characteristics of the shipping trade taking place between the two economic regions at the moment that the ship foundered. In other words, unlike land settlement sites, which reflect a longer span of chronological habitation and attendant activities that could sometimes be difficult to distinguish, or textual sources, which reflect broad structures and changes over time with little quantifiable data, shipwrecks are time capsules that provide a snapshot picture of the economic interaction occurring between two regions, purveyed by a specific shipping network, at the micro level and at a specific point in time.

In dating wrecks, both the ship’s contents and its hull are often relied upon. Coins, in particular Chinese copper cash bearing reign marks, along with trade wares such as ceramics or metal wares, the decoration and forms of which often reveal their period of manufacture, and any other items that may have inscriptions or stylistic characteristics to which a date or period may be attributed, form the bases upon which an approximate date may be assigned to a wreck. When parts of a vessel are recovered, organic samples may be sent for radiocarbon dating for an approximate dating. The resulting composite date, when one includes the numismatic, art historical, and scientific data, can often be precise to within a few decades, and occasionally to within a few years or even months. In this regard, a chronological picture can only be obtained when there are sufficient numbers of wrecks, spread over a substantial period of time, that have been excavated and dated.

The type of vessel, or more specifically the region from which it originated, may be deduced in a number of ways. In many cases, the form of the vessel would have likely been degraded beyond recognizable form. The key means of identifying a vessel’s place of origin is therefore through the construction method by which the remaining wooden planks that form a vessel’s hull are fastened together. The second key means of identification is the hull of the vessel, specifically components of its structure, such as the frames, bulkheads, and mast steps.

The route along which a vessel in question was sailing can often be postulated based on the location of wrecks. Shipwrecks tend to be located within close proximity to the major shipping routes of their time. The Turiang wreck, for example, sank slightly more than one hundred nautical miles east of Peninsular Malaysia, suggesting that the vessel may have been off-course when it foundered. Similarly, the Belitung wreck appears to have missed the Bangka Straits and the entrance to the port city of Srivijaya-Palembang and instead entered the channel between Bangka Island and Belitung Island, eventually foundering one mile from the west coast of Belitung Island.

In this regard, the location of shipwrecks in Southeast Asia primarily reflected three shipping trunk routes through Southeast Asia. The first is what has been named in Chinese texts as the western oceanic route, which begins along coastal Southeast China, down the modern-day Vietnamese coastline into the Gulf of Siam, then down the east coast of the Malay Peninsula to the Singapore Straits, before the route branches off—one branch proceeding northward into the Straits of Malacca and thence into the Bay of Bengal while the other goes southward along the southeast coast of Sumatra and onward along the north coast of Java. This route is, by far, the oldest trans-regional route, based on presently available data from shipwrecks and land settlement sites, and likely dates from at least the late 1st millennium bce.33 The second route, named in Chinese texts as the eastern oceanic route, also begins along coastal Southeast China and proceeds southward to the northern Philippines, branching off from there—one branch toward Sulu Island and thence to the north coast of Borneo, including Brunei and Sarawak, and the other proceeding southward toward the southern Philippines and the littoral areas of the Celebes Sea, including the east coast of Borneo, the northern parts of Sulawesi, and the Maluku Islands. This route, based on shipwreck data and the ceramics recovered from these places, is likely to date only from the 12th century.34 A third route, which traverses down the middle of the South China Sea, is a relatively recent route, with known shipwrecks dating only from the 18th century onward.35

Maritime Construction Techniques in Maritime Asia

Three categories of data may be derived from a shipwreck site that contribute to the overall picture of maritime trade and shipping in Southeast Asia over the last two millennia—vessel construction, cargo, and date. Of these, vessel construction, including the fastening methods and hull structures, will be elaborated upon here.

Vessel Construction

To date, several construction methods have been identified and used to classify shipwrecks found in Southeast Asia. Each of these methods is specific to the shipbuilding traditions of a particular geographical region, and with the exception of the dowel-peg and iron-nail hybrid method, each of the distinct fastening methods has remained intact and unique to their geographical region up to the present time. They may also have bearing on the general dating of the wrecks. These construction methods are the dowel-peg and lashed-lug method, the sewn-stitched method, the iron-nail method, the dowel-peg and iron-nail hybrid method, and the nail-fastener method.

Lashed-Lug Method

The earliest vessel construction method to be noted is the dowel-peg and lashed-lug method. This method is a Southeast Asian shipbuilding method and utilizes dowels to fasten the edges of the wooden boards together while plant fiber ropes are used to tie planks onto the frame of the vessel to form the vessel hull structure. This method is the oldest form of shipbuilding technology represented by shipwrecks in the region, with the earliest possibly dating to the 7th century. Earlier Southeast Asian vessels, possibly dating to the 1st century ce, also exhibit similar fastening methods. However, these were likely constructed for coastal and riverine transportation. This method of construction has continued to be utilized well into the present day.36

Sewn-Stitched Method

The sewn-stitched method is a construction technique specific to the West Indian Ocean and the Middle East. The vessel of the hull is construction from wooden planks with drill holes along the edges that are sewn together using ropes made of plant fibers. The frames are also lashed to the hull planks. No other types of fasteners are used. This construction technique has been utilized in the West Indian Ocean since at least the 1st millennium ce and continues to be employed up to the present day.37 After the dowel-peg and lashed-lug method, it is the next oldest technique of hull construction to be seen in the repertoire of wrecks located in Southeast Asia. While Middle Eastern and Indian navigation into Southeast Asia has been noted in historical texts from the second half of the 1st millennium ce onward, the earliest sewn-stitched vessel to be found in Southeast Asia dates to the late 8th century ce.

Iron-Nail Method

The iron-nail method is a construction technique developed by Chinese shipbuilders, whereby wooden planks are attached with diagonally driven iron nails to form the hull of the vessel. While such a technique was likely to have been utilized as early as the 1st millennium ce for the construction of riverine and coastal vessels in China, physical evidence of such a construction technique only begins to appear in Southeast Asia in the late northern Song period (12th to 13th centuries ce), and more prominently in the 13th century, as evidenced by the Quanzhou and Nanhai 1 wrecks recovered in Quanzhou Bay and the Pearl River Delta respectively.38

Dowel-Peg and Iron-Nail Hybrid Method

During the late 14th to early 16th centuries, vessels constructed utilizing hybrid construction methods of the Chinese and Southeast Asian traditions began to appear in the repertoire of shipwrecks in Southeast Asia. This method utilized varying degrees of dowel-peg and iron-nail fastenings in the construction of the hull. Termed “South China Sea Tradition” vessels, these vessels illustrate the cross-cultural assimilation between South China and Mainland Southeast Asia during the three centuries in question, spurred by the migration of South Chinese mariners and merchants to Southeast Asia and by Southeast Asian adoption of Chinese manufacturing technologies, including in ceramics and silk production.39

This hybrid technique does not appear to have extended beyond the 17th century. This has allowed wrecks manifesting such a construction technique to be dated with a chronological terminus.

Hull Structure

To date, several hull structures have also been identified, characteristics of which allow us to identify the place of origin of the vessel in question and, in specific examples, the period to which the vessel may belong.

Open Hull

The open hull structure is characteristic of Southeast Asian and West Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern vessels. The cargo is typically packed in such vessels in layers, as opposed to sections, with the different layers of cargo separated by decking materials such as planks or cross beams. Such a pattern of lading does not easily lend itself to the hull of the ship being leased out to multiple merchants operating on the basis of peddling trade along the sailing route of the vessel, but instead lends itself to port-to-port or region-to-region exchanges.

Open hull vessels number among the earliest wrecks in Southeast Asia and continue well into the present day, even though, from a historical perspective, they appear to have been prolific up to the 13th century.

Compartmentalized Hull

The compartmentalized hull structure is characteristic of vessels of Chinese construction. These compartments, also known as bulkheads, served the purpose of ensuring that a vessel was watertight. The watertight bulkhead made it possible for the vessel to remain afloat even when several of these compartments were flooded. From a commercial perspective, the compartmentalized hull also allowed the cargo space to be easily rented out to traders. The result is that vessels of this nature also typically exhibited a composite cargo owned by several different parties, with the possibility of peddling trade along the route of the vessel as an aspect of the commercial activities carried out by those on the vessel.

While compartmentalized hull structures were evident in vessels of Chinese origin from the late 13th century onward, between the 14th to 16th centuries vessels of the South China Sea Tradition also often exhibited such hulls, suggesting that both the construction techniques as well as the commercial practices of South Chinese traders and shippers of the first half of the 2nd millennium were likely adopted in Mainland Southeast Asia during this time.40

Ribbed Hull

With the appearance of vessels of European construction in Southeast Asia in the early 16th century, a third hull structure, termed the ribbed hull, begins to appear in the repertoire of wrecks in the region. “Ribbed hull” is a bit of a misnomer, in that all vessels were constructed with a frame structure, or “rib system.” However, vessels of European construction had the frame constructed first, with the hull then installed onto the finished frame. As such, the sequence of construction was different from the vessels constructed in the various Asian traditions.

Ribbed-hull vessels were specifically of European origin in that they were utilized by European traders or trading companies operating in Southeast Asia. However, they were also subsequently constructed outside of Europe, including in India, China, and parts of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. While these later types of vessels were constructed with timbers sourced from the region where the construction was carried out, and with fastening methods of the craftsmen of those regions, the vessels were constructed in the European style and almost exclusively commissioned by European parties.

Bibliography of Known Wrecks in Southeast Asia

What follows is a summary of the vessel type, date, and cargo of the wrecks in Southeast Asian waters that are presently known and have been excavated. While this bibliography covers the range of wreck from the late 1st to late 2nd millennium ce, it is not a complete list. Additionally, wrecks continue to be discovered and excavated in Southeast Asia.

Chau Tan Wreck

Date: late 8th century ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian (lashed-lug hull; dowel-peg fasteners).

Cargo remains: white Samarra ceramics; Changsha multi-color splashed ware; Yue ceramics; Islamic turquoise-glazed earthenware.

Nishino, Noriko, et al. “Nishimura Project: The Oldest Shipwreck Found in Vietnam: Testimony to the Maritime Ceramic Route.” Paper presented at Underwater Archaeology in Vietnam and Southeast Asia: Co-Operation for Development, Quang Ngai, Vietnam, 2014.Find this resource:

Phanom Surin Wreck

Date: early 9th century ce.

Vessel type: Middle Eastern/West Indian Ocean (stitched planks).

Cargo remains: several elephant tusks and deer antlers; Middle Eastern amphora jars.

Jumprom, Preeyanuch. “The Phanom Surin Shipwreck: New Discovery of an Arab-Style Shipwreck in Central Thailand.” Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum Newsletter 8, no. 1 (2014): 1–4.Find this resource:

Guy, John. “The Phanom Surin Shipwreck, a Pahlavi Inscription, and Their Significance for the History of Early Lower Central Thailand.” Journal of the Siam Society 105 (2017): 179–196.Find this resource:

Belitung Wreck

Date: c. 826–840 ce (based on Chinese coins and date on ceramics).

Vessel type: Middle Eastern/West Indian Ocean (stitched planks; hull timbers originating from East Africa and Middle East).

Cargo remains: 55,000 Changsha ceramics; 200 pieces of Gongxian green-splashed ceramics; 300 pieces of Ding ceramics; 30 bronze mirrors; 30 silver and gold items; 18 silver ingots.

Krahl, Regina, and John Guy, eds. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Washington, DC, and Singapore: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; National Heritage Board; Singapore Tourism Board, 2010.Find this resource:

Murphy, Stephen, ed. The Belitung Wreck. Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2017.Find this resource:

Cirebon Wreck

Date: late 10th century ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian (dowel and peg fasteners).

Cargo remains: 150 tons of iron products; 250,000 pieces of Chinese ware (majority from Zhejiang, of which 100,000 are Yue ceramics, and a small number of Hebei white ware); several bronze Vajrayana Buddhist objects.

Liebner, Horst Hubertus. “The Siren of Cirebon: a 10th-Century Trading Vessel Lost in the Java Sea.” PhD dissertation, University of Leeds, 2014.Find this resource:

Intan Wreck

Date: late 10th century ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian (lashed-lug hull).

Cargo remains: several thousand green and brown Chinese ceramics, yue ware and white and Qingbai ware; 95 Chinese bronze mirror fragments and 21 intact mirrors; 200 Southeast Asian bronze mirrors; 94 Chinese silver ingots, Chinese iron rods and blades; Middle Eastern glass; Southeast Asian lead ingots, silver, tin, and bronze; candle nuts; several pieces of worked ivory; benzoin.

Flecker, Michael. The Archaeological Excavation of the 10th Century: Intan Shipwreck. Vol. 1047. British Archaeological Reports, 2002.Find this resource:

Tanjong Simpang Mangayau Wreck

Date: 960–1127 (Northern Song period).

Vessel type: Chinese (hull constructed of temperate climate wood).

Cargo remains: 303 ceramic items; 250 kilograms of ceramic sherds; 61 bronze gongs; 76 Southeast Asian copper discs.

Sjostand, Sten. The Tanjung Simpang Ship.

Sjostrand, Sten, Adi Haji Taha, and Samsol Sahar. Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks. Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Muzium, 2006.Find this resource:

Pulau Buaya Wreck

Date: late 12th–early 13th century ce.

Vessel type: Unknown.

Cargo remains: more than 32,000 Chinese ceramic items; small quantity of Southeast Asian fine paste earthenware ceramics; small number of glassware; copper (slab ingots, bronze gong, large copper rings); tin pyramidal ingots; rectangular metal ingots (tin, lead, or zinc); 2 Chinese copper coins; iron bars and woks.

Ridho, Abu, and E. Edwards McKinnon. The Pulau Buaya Wreck: Finds from the Song Period. Jakarta: Ceramic Society of Indonesia, 1998.Find this resource:

Java Sea Wreck

Date: early 13th century ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian (Bornean ironwood dowels; lashed-lug hull).

Cargo remains: 12,000 pieces of South Chinese stoneware ceramics (estimated 100,000 pieces as the original cargo); 200 tons of Chinese iron; two Chinese bronze gongs; eight pieces of Southeast Asian plant resin; three Southeast Asian copper ingots; 16 elephant tusks; 31 Thai kendis (ceramic water vessels); 2 bronze figures; 1 set of copper alloy weights; 2 balance bars; 5 glass fragments.

Mathers, William M., and Michael Flecker, eds. Archaeological Report: Archaeological Recovery of the Java Sea Wreck. Annapolis: Pacific Sea Resources, 1997.Find this resource:

Flecker, Michael. “The Thirteenth-Century Java Sea Wreck: A Chinese Cargo in an Indonesian Ship.” The Mariner’s Mirror 89, no. 4 (2003): 388–404.Find this resource:

Flecker, Michael. Java Sea Wreck (13th c.).

Quanzhou Wreck

Date: c. 1272–1278 ce.

Vessel type: Chinese (Iron-nail fasteners; compartmentalized bulkheads).

Cargo remains: predominantly green Longquan celadon ceramics; 2 Chinese bronze mirrors; Southeast Asian ceramic kendis.

Merwin, D. “Selections from Wen-Wu on the Excavation of a Sung Dynasty Seagoing Vessel in Chuan-Chou.” Chinese Sociology and Anthropology 9, no. 3 (1977): 3–106.Find this resource:

Green, Jeremy. “The Song Dynasty Shipwreck at Quanzhou, Fujian Province, People’s Republic of China.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 12, no. 3 (1983): 253–261.Find this resource:

Green, Jeremy, N. Burningham, et al. “The Ship from Quanzhou, Fujian Province, People’s Republic of China.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 27, no. 4 (1998): 277–301.Find this resource:

Jade Dragon Wreck

Date: c. 1300 ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian (lashed-lug hull).

Cargo remains: predominantly green Longquan celadon ceramics; 2 Chinese bronze mirrors; Southeast Asian ceramic kendis.

Maritime Explorations. Jade Dragon Wreck.

Flecker, Michael. “The Jade Dragon Wreck: Sabah, East Malaysia.” The Mariner’s Mirror 98, no. 1 (2012): 9–29.Find this resource:

Turiang Wreck

Date: late 14th century.

Vessel type: Chinese (hull constructed of temperate-climate wood).

Cargo remains: Southeast Asian foodstuffs; 3 or 4 elephant tusks; sphalerite; oxidized iron lumps; more than 6,000 ceramic pieces (3,000 Sukhothai ceramic plates; 730 Sisatchanalai ceramics; 8 Suphanburi storage jars; 500 Vietnamese underglaze ceramic bowls; 2,040 Guangdong ceramics; 200 Longquan celadon ceramics).

Maritime Asia. Turiang: A 14th Century Chinese Shipwreck, Upsetting Southeast Asian Ceramics History.

Brown, Roxanna, and Sten Sjostrand., Turiang: A Fourteenth Century Wreck in Southeast Asian Waters. Pasadena, CA: Pacific Asia Museum, 2000.Find this resource:

Nanyang Wreck

Date: late 14th century ce.

Vessel type: Possibly Southeast Asian (wooden dowel fasteners).

Cargo remains: approximately 10,000 Sisatchanalai (Thailand) celadon ceramics.

Sjostrand, Sten, Adi Haji Taha, and Samsol Sahar. Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks. Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Muzium, 2006, pp. 74–76.Find this resource:

Maritime Asia. The Nanyang Ship.

Ko Si Chang III Wreck

Date: early 15th century ce (radiocarbon dated to 1410 +/- 70).

Vessel type: Southeast Asian Hybrid (dowel fasteners; hull compartments).

Cargo remains: foodstuffs (eggs, resins, ivory, nuts).

Green, Jeremy, and Vidya Intakosi. “The Ko Si Chang III Shipwreck Excavation 1986.” In Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology Special Publication No. 4. Albert Park, Victoria: Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 1987.Find this resource:

Bakau Wreck

Date: early 15th century ce (radiocarbon dating and Chinese coins [Yongle, 1403–1424]).

Vessel type: Chinese (iron nails, compartmentalized bulkheads; pine timber hull).

Cargo remains: majority Sukhothai ceramics; small quantities of Sawankhalok ware and Vietnamese ware; Chinese Longquan celadon, brown ware, and qingbai ware.

Flecker, Michael. “The Bakau Wreck: An Early Example of Chinese Shipping in Southeast Asia.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 30, no. 2 (2001): 221–230.Find this resource:

Flecker, Michael. The Bakau Shipwreck (15th c.).

Longquan Wreck

Date: early 15th century ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian Hybrid.

Cargo remains: Sisatchanalai celadon (40% of cargo remains); Chinese (Longquan) celadon (40% of remains); unglazed Sukhothai ceramics (20% of remains).

Sjostrand, Sten, Adi Haji Taha, and Samsol Sahar. Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks. Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Muzium, 2006, pp. 82–85.Find this resource:

Maritime Asia. Longquan Ship (+/- 1400).

Royal Nanhai Wreck

Date: 1450–1464 ce (based on dating of Vietnamese ceramics cargo).

Vessel type: Southeast Asian Hybrid (Hopei species hardwood timber hull; compartmentalized bulkheads; dowels; nails and bolts fasteners).

Cargo remains: 20,000 pieces of Sisatchanalai celadon; Chinese underglaze blue and white ceramics; Vietnamese underglaze blue ceramics; additional 11 tons of ceramic sherds.

Sten Sjostrand, Adi Haji Taha, and Samsol Sahar. Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks. Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Muzium, 2006, pp. 68–73.Find this resource:

Maritime Asia. The Royal Nanhai Ship (+/- 1460).

Silk Road: Dialogue, Diversity and Development. The Royal Nanhai Shipwreck (1460).

Pandanan Wreck

Date: mid-15th century ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian.

Cargo remains: 4,722 artifacts, including Vietnamese blue-and-white and celadon ceramics (majority of the ceramic cargo remains); Chinese blue-and-white, white, and celadon ceramics; Thai ceramics; Southeast Asian earthenware; glass beads; and Chinese copper coins.

Tanaka Kazuhiko, and Eusebio Z. Dizon. “Shipwreck Site and Earthenware Vessels in the Philippines: Earthenware Vessels of the Pandanan Shipwreck Site.” The MUA Collection.Find this resource:

Dizon, E. Z. “Anatomy of a Shipwreck: Archaeology of the 15th-Century Pandanan Shipwreck.” In Christophe Loviny, ed. The Pearl Road: Tales of Treasure Ships in the Philippines. Makati City: Asiatype, 1996.Find this resource:

Phu Quoc Wreck

Date: late 14th–early 15th century ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian (Thai).

Cargo remains: partially looted; 1,100 intact Sawankhalok ceramics recovered from one hull compartment.

Blake, W., and M. Flecker. “A Preliminary Survey of a Southeast Asian Wreck, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 23, no. 2 (1994): 73–91.Find this resource:

Brunei Wreck

Date: late 15th–early 16th century ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian Hybrid.

Cargo remains: underglaze blue and white ceramics; Chinese white ware ceramics; Thai Celadon ceramics; 2300 stoneware jars; iron bars; bronze-copper bracelets.

l’Hour, Michel. La mémoire engloutie de Brunei: Une aventure archéologique sous-marine. Paris: Edition Textuel, 2001.Find this resource:

Xuande Wreck

Date: c. 1540 ce (based on the ceramics cargo).

Vessel type: unknown (no hull remains left).

Cargo remains: two Portuguese-style breech-loading canons; several Chinese porcelain ceramics with Xuande (1426–1435) reign marks; Chinese blue and white ceramics; Chinese white ware ceramics; Sisatchanalai black ware ceramics.

Sjostrand, Sten, Adi Haji Taha, and Samsol Sahar. Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks. Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Muzium, 2006, pp. 78–81.Find this resource:

Shipwreck Asia. Xuande Wreck Site

Singtai Wreck

Date: c. 1550 ce.

Vessel type: Chinese.

Cargo remains: Thai ceramic storage jars (Singburi type); other Thai ceramics.

Sjostrand, Sten, Adi Haji Taha, and Samsol Sahar. Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks. Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Muzium, 2006, pp. 96–99.Find this resource:

Sjostrand, Sten. The Singtai Ship (+/- 1550).

Shipwreck Asia. Singtai Wreck Site.

San Diego Wreck

Date: c. 1600 ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian, European-design ribbed framework.

Cargo remains: 34,000 pieces of cargo and ship items; primarily Kraak and Swatow ware (Wan Li period, 1573–1619); stoneware ceramic jars form China, Thailand, Myanmar, Spain, and Mexico; Filipino earthenware; Japanese weapons; silver coins.

Orillaneda, Bobby C. “The San Diego and Pandanan Wrecks: Two Underwater Archaeological Sites.” Hukay 2, no. 2 (2002): 37–45.Find this resource:

Binh Thuan Wreck

Date: c. 1608 ce.

Vessel type: Chinese (compartmentalized bulkheads; iron nail fasteners; axial rudder).

Cargo remains: cast iron pans; 100,000 pieces of Zhangzhou ceramics.

Flecker, Michael. “The Bihn Thuan Shipwreck Archaeological Report.” Auction Catalogue, Christie’s Australia, 2004, pp. 1–22.Find this resource:

Flecker Michael. “Treasures of the Binh Thuan Shipwreck.” Heritage Asia Magazine 1, no. 4 (2004).Find this resource:

Flecker, Michael. The Bihn Thuan Shipwreck (c. 1608).

Wanli Wreck

Date: c. 1625 ce.

Vessel type: Southeast Asian or Indian, European-design ribbed framework.

Cargo remains: Chinese Kraak ware ceramics (dated to the Wanli era, 1573–1620); two cannons.

Sjostrand, Sten, and Sharipah Lok Lok bt Syed Idrus. The Wanli Shipwreck and Its Ceramic Cargo. Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Muzium, 2007.Find this resource:

Vung Tau Wreck

Date: c. 1690 ce.

Vessel type: Chinese Lorcha (Chinese-European hybrid; built in China).

Cargo remains: blue and white Jingdezhen porcelain in European forms (dated to the Kangxi era); Dehua ceramics; Chinese provincial kiln ceramics; floor tiles; cast iron pans and cauldrons.

Flecker, Michael. “Excavation of an Oriental Vessel of c. 1690 off Con Dao, Vietnam.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 21, no. 3 (1992): 221–244.Find this resource:

Jorg, C., and M. Flecker. Porcelain from the Vung Tau Wreck: The Hallstrom Excavation. London: Sun Tree, 2001.Find this resource:

Flecker, Michael. The Vung Tau Shipwreck (c. 1690).

Fluit Risdam Wreck

Date: c. 1727 ce.

Vessel type: European (Fluit).

Cargo remains: tin ingots; sappanwood; elephant tusks; 150 empty glazed pots

Green, J. N., and E. V. Gangadharam. The Survey of the V. O. c. Fluit Risdam, 1727. Malaysia, Report Dept, Maritime Archaeology, no. 25. Fremantle: Western Australian Maritime Museum, 1985.Find this resource:

Ca Mau Wreck

Date: c. 1730 ce.

Vessel type: possibly Southeast Asian Hybrid (hull constructed of Dipterocarpus timber).

Cargo remains: Jingdezhen porcelain decorated with Dutch rural scenes (dated to 1723–1735); large number of ceramic zoomorphic figures; iron pans.

Chien, Nguyen Dinh. The Ca Mau Shipwreck, 1723–1735. Hanoi: National Museum of Vietnamese History, 2002.Find this resource:

Fajcsak, Gyorgyi, Nguyen Dinh Chien, and Janos Jelen. The Ca Mau Shipwreck Porcelain (1723–1735). Budapest: JelNet Ltd., 2009.Find this resource:

Sotheby’s. Made in Imperial China, 76000 Pieces of Chinese Export Porcelain from the Ca Mau Shipwreck, circa 1725. Amsterdam: Sotheby’s, 2007.Find this resource:


Date: c. 1752 ce.

Vessel type: European (VOC East Indiaman).

Cargo remains: 180,000 pieces of underglaze blue and white porcelain (forms intended for the European market).

Jorg, C. J. A. The Geldermalsen: History and Porcelain. Groningen, The Netherlands: Kemper, 1986.Find this resource:


Date: c. 1817 ce.

Vessel type: European (English country trader).

Cargo remains: 18 tons of utilitarian ceramics; sugar; textiles; tea.

Ball, D. The Diana Adventure. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Historical Salvors, 1995.Find this resource:

Tek Sing Wreck

Date: c. 1822 ce.

Vessel type: Chinese.

Cargo remains: 300,000 pieces of utilitarian Dehua ceramics.

Pickford, Nigel, and Michael Hatcher. The Legacy of the Tek Sing. Cambridge, U.K.: Granta Editions, 2000.Find this resource:

Desaru Wreck

Date: c. 1840 ce (dated on a recovered canon).

Vessel type: Chinese (hull constructed of pine and cedar; bulkheads).

Cargo remains: 70,000 pieces of provincial Chinese ceramics.

Sjostrand, Sten. Desaru Shipwreck Site.

While Internet and digital database search capabilities have opened up the possibility of utilizing digital storage and online access to make primary data from shipwrecks accessible to scholars, online and digital materials have remained limited to basic information on wrecks recovered in Southeast Asia. A number of online sites have become available over the last decade for the aggregation of maritime archaeological information, including news, images of wreck sites and their cargo content, and excavation reports. Importantly, the best sites continue to be those maintained by commercial salvage operators, reflecting the continued reliance in Southeast Asia on commercial operators in maritime archaeological excavations.

The following is a representation of the electronic resources presently available on shipwrecks and marine archaeology in Southeast Asia:

Maritime Explorations: This site features reports of a large number of shipwrecks excavated primarily in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, conducted by the salvage company Maritime Explorations.

Maritime Asia: This site features reports of several shipwrecks excavated primarily in Malaysia. Most of the wrecks features on this site have been excavated by Sten Sjostrand, all of which had been conducted under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities, Malaysia.

Image and Documents Collection, The Museum of Underwater Archaeology (Rhode Island): This site contains the proceedings of the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage (2011 and 2014), and an Asian Maritime Resources Bibliography.

Shipwreck Asia: This site is an online database dedicated to pre-modern seagoing vessels of East Asia and is funded by the Toyota Foundation.

Department of Marine Archaeology Report Series, Western Australian Museum (Fremantle, Australia): This site contains a number of reports on shipwreck excavations and wreck cargoes in Southeast Asia that the Museum’s Department of Marine Archaeology has been involved in.

SEAARCH: This blog site contains a large aggregation of links to news feeds on archaeological activities and discoveries in Southeast Asia, including maritime archaeology.

Musee Royal de Mariemont (Belgium): This site contains information on the Cirebon wreck, including information on the hull structure, cargo, and some information on the historical context of the period to which the wreck belongs.

Chinese Archaeology (Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; China): Although this site contains databases of reports and journals published in China on Chinese archaeology, there are a number of newsfeeds, reports, and journal articles here that pertain to Chinese wrecks, excavated in Chinese territorial waters, that have direct relevance to the study of Southeast Asia’s historical economic interactions with China. Wrecks that are of particular relevance include the Nanhai 1 wreck (12th century, Guangzhou) and the Quanzhou wreck (late 13th century, Quanzhou).

Further Reading

Brown, Roxanna Maude. The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia: Towards a Chronology of Thai Trade Ware. Bangkok: The Siam Society, 2009.Find this resource:

Brown, Roxanna M., and Sten Sjostrand. Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Museums and Antiquities, 2002.Find this resource:

Chong, Alan, and Stephen A. Murphy, eds. The Tang Shipwreck: Art and Exchange in the 9th Century. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2017.Find this resource:

Kimura, Jun, ed. Shipwreck Asia: Thematic Studies in East Asian Maritime Archaeology. Adelaide, Australia: Maritime Archaeology Program, Flinders University, 2010.Find this resource:

Krahl, Regina, John Guy, J. Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, eds. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 2010.Find this resource:

Tan, Heidi, ed. Marine Archaeology in Southeast Asia: Innovation and Adaptation. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012.Find this resource:

Wells, Tony. Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Times Editions, 1995.Find this resource:


(1.) Roland St John Braddell and F. W. Douglas, A Study of Ancient Times in the Malay Peninsula and the Straits of Malacca (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1980); W. P. Groeneveldt, Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca (Batavia: W. Bruining, 1876); and Paul Pelliot, “Le Fou-nan,” Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient 3, no. 2 (1903): 248–303.

(2.) George Cœdès, Histoire ancienne des États hindouisés d’Extrême-Orient (Paris: Impr. d’Extrême-Orient, 1944).

(4.) Pierre-Yves Manguin, “Palembang and Sriwijaya: An Early Malay Harbour-City Rediscovered,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 66, no. 1 (264 (1993): 23–46; Bennet Bronson and Jan Wisseman, “Palembang as Śrīvijaya: The Lateness of Early Cities in Southern Southeast Asia,” Asian Perspectives 19, no. 2 (1976): 220–239; Jaya Kathirithamby-Wells and John Villiers, eds., The Southeast Asian Port and Polity: Rise and Demise (Singapore: Singapore University Press, National University of Singapore, 1990); Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman, “Art, Archaeology and the Early Kingdom in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra: c. 400–1400 AD” (PhD dissertation, University of London, 1984); and John N. Miksic, “Urbanization and Social Change: The Case of Sumatra,” Archipel 37, no. 1 (1989): 3–29.

(5.) Jeremy Green and Rosemary Harper, “The Ko Si Chang One Shipwreck Excavation 1983–1985. A Progress Report,” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 15, no. 2 (1986): 105–122.

(6.) Mary Jane Calderon, “Underwater Archaeology in the Philippines,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 17, no. 4 (1989): 322–325.

(8.) See, for example, the workshop organized by the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof-Ishak Institute, entitled The Heritage of Ancient and Urban Sites: Giving Voice to Local Priorities, March 14 and 15, 2016.

(9.) Patrick J. O’Keefe, “‘Commercial Exploitation’: Its Prohibition in the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001 and Other Instruments,” Art Antiquity & Law 18, no. 2 (2013): 129–149; and Patrick Coleman, “UNESCO and the Belitung Shipwreck: The Need for a Permissive Definition of Commercial Exploitation,” George Washington International Law Review 45 (2013): 847.

(11.) Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 3.

(12.) Bennet Bronson, “Exchange at the upstream and Downstream Ends: Notes Toward a Functional Model of the Coastal State in Southeast Asia,” in Economic Exchange and Social Interaction in Southeast Asia: Perspectives From Prehistory, History, and Ethnography, ed. Karl Hutterer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1977), 39–52.

(13.) Kenneth R. Hall, Maritime Trade and State Development in Early Southeast Asia (Manoa: University of Hawaii Press, 1985); and Lynda Norene Shaffer, Maritime Southeast Asia, 300 BC to AD 1528 (London: Routledge, 2015).

(14.) David Edward Sopher, The Sea Nomads: A Study of the Maritime Boat People of Southeast Asia, No. 5 (National Museum, 1965); and Geoffrey Benjamin and Cynthia Chou, eds., Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2002).

(15.) Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250–1350 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

(16.) Himanshu Prabha Ray, “Seafaring in the Bay of Bengal in the Early Centuries AD,” Studies in History 6, no. 1 (1990): 1–14; and P.-Y. Manguin, “Southeast Asian Shipping in the Indian Ocean During the 1st Millennium AD,” in Tradition and Archaeology: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean, ed. Himanshu Prabha Ray and Jean-François Salles (Lyon, France: Manohar, Maison de l’Orient méditerranéen, 1996), 181–198.

(17.) Pierre-Yves Manguin, “Trading Ships of the South China Sea. Shipbuilding Techniques and Their Role in the History of the Development of Asian Trade Networks,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (1993): 258; and Sean McGrail, Boats of the World: From the Stone Age to Medieval Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 298, 299.

(18.) ASEAN-COCI, Symposium on Maritime and Waterways, Muzium Negeri Terengganu, Terengganu, Malaysia, January 23–28, 2006.

(19.) Peter Bellwood, Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago, rev. ed. (Canberra, Australia: ANU Press, 2013).

(20.) Noriko Nishino et al. “Nishimura Project: The Oldest Shipwreck Found in Vietnam: Testimony to the Maritime Ceramic Route,” paper presented at Underwater Archaeology in Vietnam and Southeast Asia: Co-Operation for Development, Quang Ngai, Vietnam, 2014; and Horst Hubertus Liebner, “The Siren of Cirebon: A Tenth-Century Trading Vessel Lost in the Java Sea” (PhD dissertation, University of Leeds, 2014).

(21.) Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta Sastri, South India and South-East Asia: studies in Their History and Culture (Mysore, India: Geetha Book House, 1978).

(22.) Berenice Bellina et al. “The Early Development of Coastal Polities in the Upper Thai-Malay Peninsula,” in Before Siam: Essays in Art and Archaeology, ed. Nicolas Revire and Stephen Murphy (Bangkok: River Books, 2014), 68–89; Janice Stargardt, Satingpra, British Archaeological Reports, vol. 158 (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports Limited, 1983); and James Khoo, Art and Archaeology of Fu Nan: Pre-Khmer Kingdom of the Lower Mekong Valley (Singapore: Orchid Press, 2003).

(23.) Hans Bielenstein, Diplomacy and Trade in the Chinese World, 589–1276. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005).

(24.) Derek Heng, Sino-Malay Trade and Diplomacy form the Tenth Through the Fourteenth Century (Singapore: ISEAS, 2012), 2.

(25.) Wang Gungwu, The Nanhai Trade: The Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998); Derek Heng, Sino-Malay Trade and Diplomacy, 37–48; and Roxanna M. Brown, The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia: Towards a Chronology of Thai Trade Ware (Bangkok: Siam Society, 2009).

(26.) John Guy, “Hollow and Useless Luxuries: The Tang Shipwreck and the Emerging Role of Arab Traders in the Late First Millennium Indian Ocean,” in The Tang Shipwreck: Art and Exchange in the 9th Century, ed. Alan Chong and Stephen A. Murphy (Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2017), 164–177; Regina Krahl et al., eds., Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2010), 2–39; and Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of Tʻang Exotics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 26–30.

(27.) Derek Heng, “Trans-Regionalism and Economic Co-Dependency in the South China Sea: The Case of China and the Malay Region (Tenth to Fourteenth Centuries AD),” International History Review 35, no. 3 (2013): 486–510.

(28.) John E. Wills Jr., China and Maritime Europe, 1500–1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

(29.) Derek Heng, “The Tang Shipwreck and the Nature of China’s Maritime Trade During the Late Tang Period,” in The Tang Shipwreck: Art and Exchange in the 9th Century, ed. Alan Chong and Stephen A. Murphy (Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2017), 142–163.

(30.) Preeyanuch Jumprom, “The Phanom Surin Shipwreck: New Discovery of an Arab-Style Shipwreck in Central Thailand,” Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum Newsletter 8, no. 1 (2014): 1–4; Michael Flecker, The Archaeological Excavation of the 10th Century: Intan Shipwreck, vol. 1047 (British Archaeological Reports, 2002); and Roxanna Brown and Sten Sjostrand, Turiang: A Fourteenth Century Wreck in Southeast Asian Waters (Pasadena, CA: Pacific Asia Museum, 2000).

(31.) Chin-keong Ng, Trade and Society, the Amoy Network on the China Coast, 1683–1735 (Singapore: NUS Press, 1983); and Anthony Reid and Radin Fernando, “Shipping on Melaka and Singapore as an Index of Growth, 1760–1840,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 19, no. 1 (1996): 59–84.

(32.) Elizabeth A. Bacus and Lisa J. Lucero, “Introduction: Issues in the Archaeology of Tropical Polities,” in Complex Polities in the Ancient Tropical World. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association no. 9, ed. Elizabeth A. Bacus and Lisa J. Lucero (Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association, 1999), 1–11.

(33.) O. W. Wolters, Early Indonesian Commerce: A Study of the Origins of Srivijaya (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), 31–48.

(34.) Roderich Ptak, “The Northern Trade Route to the Spice Islands: South China Sea-Sulu Zone-North Moluccas (14th to early 16th century),” Archipel 43, no. 1 (1992): 27–56.

(35.) Michael Flecker, “Early Voyaging in the South China Sea: Implications on Territorial Claims,” Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre Working Paper no. 19, August 2015.

(36.) Manguin, “Trading Ships,” 255–265.

(37.) Seán McGrail and Eric Kentley, Sewn Plank Boats: Archaeological and Ethnographic Papers Based on Those Presented to a Conference at Greenwich in November, 1984, British Archaeological Reports no. 10. (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports Ltd., 1985); Jewel of Muscat.

(38.) Jeremy Green and Nick Burningham, “The Ship from Quanzhou, Fujian Province, People’s Republic of China,” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 27, no. 4 (1998): 277–301; and Chen Bo, “The Ink Handwritings on the Nanhai No. 1 Shipwreck and the Hierarchical Relationship of the Staff Members of the Song-Yuan Merchant Ships,” Southeast Culture 3 (2013): 15.

(39.) Jeremy Green, “The Archaeological Contribute to the Knowledge of the Extra-European Shipbuilding at the Time of the Medieval and Modern Iberian-Atlantic Tradition,” Proceedings, International Symposium on Archaeology of Medieval and Modern Ships of Iberian-Atlantic Tradition (2001), 63–103.

(40.) Michael Flecker, “The South‐China‐Sea Tradition: The Hybrid Hulls of South‐East Asia,” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 36, no. 1 (2007): 75–90.