The waters off the central region of Vietnam are located on the ancient ‘Ceramic Road’ – formerly a trade route linking the Orient and the Occident. It is estimated that dozens of ships carrying ceramic wares wrecked in the area.
Part 1: ‘Cemetery’ of ancient shipwrecks in Quang Ngai
Part 2: Drying up the sea to find shipwrecked antiques
Part 3: Aquatic archaeology in Vietnam inadequate
The area has long been a place where locals and fishermen dredge for antiques from the seabed. Antique dealers also arrive to buy items that are hundreds of years old.
The waters belong to Chau Thuan Bien Hamlet in Binh Son District of the central province of Quang Ngai.
The ‘living dictionary’ of ancient shipwrecks
The latest discovery of an ancient ship in the area was in September last year. The ship was only excavated this month after nine months of preparation. It is the sixth vessel discovered in Chau Thuan Bien, according to Mr. Tu Lanh – who is honored by locals as ‘the living dictionary of ancient wrecked ships’.
Lanh showed us a thick wooden plank outside his house and said it was sawed from a whole block that was 25 meters long, 60cm wide, and 22cm thick. It is from the fifth ship found in the area.
The big block was installed on the bottom of an ancient ship, running from the prow to the end, and was used as the main item that connected other wooden pieces, said Lanh, who added that the ship likely caught fire before it sank, as one side of the plank still has burn marks.
He said he lifted the plank from the waters in May last year, just a kilometer from the coast. An antique item from the same ship was picked up 20 years ago by a local in Chau Thuan Bien. It is a ceramic support used to hold a bowl, featuring a drawing of a couple having sex.
At the time it was sold for a lot of money, Lanh recalled.
Since then, more antiques have been discovered by locals frequenting the area, until he identified the ship and lifted it up. The antiques were then sold to dealers by the kilogram.
At the time of excavation, the ship lay three meters under the sandy seabed. A local said the antiques were discovered in great number and carried away by trucks.
Phan Van Manh, chief of the heritage association in Quang Ngai, said the ship’s ceramic items are popular, and different from the court category of higher quality used in imperial palaces.
Antiques discovered from a wrecked ship in Chau Thuan Bien, located on the ancient ‘Ceramic Road’
Other provinces have shipwrecks
Besides ships carrying ceramic antiques, other wrecked ships carrying items made of bronze, iron, terra cotta, and coins have been discovered. Most of the ships were lying four to five meters under the seabed, just 100m – 1km from the coast.
Nguyen Van Thuan, a fisherman, noted that antiques discovered in wrecked ships come from a variety of categories and time periods, proving that dozens of ancient ships wrecked in the area.
The territorial waters of Quang Ngai belonged to the ‘Ceramic Road’ -- a trade route linking Asia and the outer worlds in Europe and America, according to researchers.
The waters to the east and southeast of Vietnam are also home to a large number of wrecked ships. From 1990 – 2002, the History Museum of Vietnam excavated five wrecks along the coast of Vietnam from Quang Nam to Binh Thuan, Ba Ria - Vung Tau, Kien Giang, and Ca Mau.
The ships dated back to the 13th-18th centuries, and the antiques they carried were made in China, Thailand and Vietnam.
Other coastal provinces in the central region, such as Thua Thien - Hue, Binh Dinh, Phu Yen, and Khanh Hoa have discovered antiques and wrecked ships buried under the seabed in their waters as well.