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Ceramics from Nanhai 1 shipwreck 

In 1987 a team from UK Maritime Exploration & Recoveries PLC  stumbled across a Chinese merchant shipwreck while searching for the wreck of the 18th Century ship Rhynsburg in the South China sea in the region near Haining Island (海陵岛) of Guangdong Province.  The ship named  Nanhai One (南海一號) measured about 30m in length and was buried in silt.  About 200 pieces of porcelain were recovered, together with Song coins, about 130 kilos of silver bars, a brass kettle and a gold waist chain. 

The Chinese authority decided to put on hold the salvage operation as at the point of time the Chinese still lack the underwater archaeology capability.  Since then, the Chinese has built up an underwater archaeology team which made some exploratory work on the wreck from 2001 onward.  In March 2003, they opened a window and entered a little cabin of the ship. More than 4,000 delicate porcelains were found in a cupboard.  It is estimated there are about 60,000 to 80,000 items onboard

Location of wreck


The main body of Nanhai 1 is pretty well preserved, and could  yield critical information on ancient Chinese ship building and navigation technologies.  In view of the importance of the wreck, a decision was made to preserve the wreck and house it in a museum in Yangjang opposite Haining IslandIn 2007, the ship encased in a large cage together with the silt, was raised and placed in a pool-called the "Crystal Palace" in the museum .  It has the same water quality, temperature and environment as the spot in which the wreck was discovered.  Chinese archaeologists said that they would be cautious about removing the ship's covering of mud.  Opening it rashly could lead to the destruction of the ship and its contents.  Research  and recovery of the artifacts is expected to take many more years.

Sketch of the wreck

Wreck encased in cage being transported


Nanhai 1 Museum The pool that housed the wreck


Ceramics in the wreck

More than 10,000 copper coins were recovered from the wreck, the latest are Shaoxing yuanbao (绍兴元宝). Those were minted during the period when the first Southern Song emperor, Gaozhong ruled under the reign name Shaoxing (1131 A.D - 1162 A.D).  The type of Longquan and Jingdezhen porcelains found in the wreck is known to be produced during the 1150 to 1200 A.D.  Hence, the wreck is likely to be dated to this date range.

The mix of porcelains recovered so far is typical of those exported to the Southeast Asian region.  Besides Qingbai from Jingdezhen and Longquan celadon, most of the other items originated from Fujian Province.  This is strong indication that the port of departure of the ship was Quanzhou in Fujian.  Quanzhou was the largest port during the Southern Song to Yuan period.  During that period, many kilns were in operation near the Fujian coastal region.  The kiln operators  capitalised on their proximity to Quanzhou port to supply porcelain wares for the overseas market.  In the wreck, porcelains from kilns such as Dehua, Cizao in Quanzhou and Mingqing were recovered.  One exception was a Jian temmoku black bowl.  The Jian kilns were located in the inner region near Wuyi mountain.  In fact, Jian temmoku bowls rarely featured as export wares  in Southeast Asia.  It is intriguing to know whether it was an item used by a member of the crew.


Longquan celadon wares

Most of the Longquan celadon found were bowls with carved lotus or stylised floral motif.  They were also found in the Jepara shipwreck from Indonesia and dated also to the Southern Song period.  These were popular with the consumers from Southeast Asia and found in sizeable quantity from graves and ancient habitation sites.The glaze is transparent and the fact that no Longquan wares with the thick, translucent glaze were found provides assurance of the early Southern song dating.  The later were introduced during the mid to late Song period and typifies what one usually associated Longquan celadon with.

Longquan bowl with carved lotus motif

Longquan bowl with carved stylised floral motif


  Besides the above, there are also some very fine and elegant chrysanthemum floral-shaped Longquan celadon dishes.


Jingdezhen Qingbai wares

The Jingdezhen qingbai wares found consisted of mainly bowls and dishes.  There are finely potted and has a pleasing icy bluish tone. The decorated is either impressed or carved.  One of the bowl on displayed is carved with the popular infants among foliage motif.


Fujian porcelain wares

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Dehua white/qingbai wares constituted quite a high percentage of the ceramics finds.  They consisted of mainly cover boxes,  big bowls, small vases and jarlets and some ewers. The colour ranges from a very light bluish to white tone. 

Dehua big bowls with carved floral motif

Brown glaze and green lead-glazed porcelains from Quanzhou Cizao kiln were also among the artefacts recovered.  Those dark brown glaze vases and jars are found in large number in Southeast Asia.  Some of the rarer items consisted of green lead glazed dishes with impressed floral motif.

Besides the above, there was a stack of porcelain fragments, among them is the base of a celadon bowl.  It is most likely also of Fujain origin.  The motif could not been seen but are most likely carved and combed motif.  They are usually yellowish and grayish green in colour and with unglaze footring which are more crudely form.  Many of the the decoration are similar to those found on Longquan wares.  Some likely examples could be found in the Jepara wreck.

Among the artefacts are also some bowls with carved floral motif and termed qingbai  They have a grayish white or straw colour tone.  One of the notable kilns in Fujian which produced such items was in Minqing Yi kiln.  S ome examples attributed to this kiln were among the finds.  Another kiln known to produce similar type is in Tongan.

So far, comparable examples of the types of porcelain wares salvaged from this wreck could be found in Southeast Asia.  The varying range of quality of the wares indicates that it catered both to the rich and common folks. 

Written by NK Koh (22 Jun 2012)