After six years of underwater excavations at the site of two historic shipwrecks discovered in Singapore Territorial Waters, analysis of the vessels’ artefacts is set to shed light on the island’s long history as a maritime trading hub.
In 2015, divers involved in a maritime operation off the coast of Pedra Branca, an outlying island of Singapore, unearthed centuries-old ceramic plates. The finds led to the discovery of a c.14th-century shipwreck. It is the first ever shipwreck to be found in Singapore Territorial Waters that dates back to the times of Ancient Singapore, when the island was known as ‘Temasek’.
Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB) commissioned the archaeological unit of the ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute to survey and excavate the shipwreck.
‘Apart from a large cargo of Longquan green-ware and other ceramics, she carried more Chinese Yuan dynasty [1271-1368] blue-and-white porcelain than any other documented shipwreck in the world. Many of the pieces are rare, and one is believed to be unique,’ said Dr Michael Flecker, the Project Director of Maritime Archaeology Projects at ISEAS.
These underwater investigations led to the detection of a second shipwreck off Pedra Branca which was identified as the Shah Munchah, a merchant vessel that sank in 1796 while voyaging from China to India.
Excavations of the site, which ended in mid-2021, revealed a diverse array of artefacts including Chinese ceramics and objects of agate, glass, and copper alloy, as well as the ship’s anchors and cannons.
According to Dr Flecker: ‘The ship’s incredibly diverse cargo provides great insights into the types of goods that would have been exchanged and purchased by the new inhabitants of this fledgling city.’
The discoveries are significant as they reveal the long history of maritime trade in Singapore well before the establishment of the East India Company in 1819.
Mr Yeo Kirk Siang, Director of the NHB’s Heritage Research and Assessment, said: ‘As an island that has been serving as the gateway to Asia for centuries, Singapore today is the legacy of our rich maritime heritage. The wide range and large quantities of artefacts from the two shipwrecks will bring invaluable insights into the maritime trading history of early Singapore and the region.’
The artefacts are currently in the care of the NHB and ISEAS. They will undergo a desalination process, before being carefully cleaned, catalogued, and finally exhibited in the NHB’s museums.