Published: July 17, 2019

What We’re Still Uncovering from an 800-Year-Old Shipwreck


How the Java Sea Shipwreck gives a glimpse into complex trade networks of the past.

Several ceramic bowls rest on the seafloor, stuck together along with corroded iron and remnants of sea life.

When your job is studying an ancient shipwreck, you hear about “sunken treasure” a time or two. Since 2011, Dr. Lisa Niziolek’s work has focused on items recovered from the Java Sea Shipwreck, found off the coast of Indonesia. Items from the ship’s cargo were surprisingly intact after spending around 800 years on the seafloor.

It might not be the treasure you imagine: 200 tons of iron, thousands of ceramic pieces, resin (used in incense, medicine, or as caulking material), and elephant tusks. But for scientists like Niziolek, it’s a research jackpot. Her background is in the compositional analysis of ceramics, which means analyzing and identifying the elements in materials used to make pottery. This specialty, combined with changing technologies, collaborations, and the collection itself, makes for a unique research opportunity to study the shipwreck in depth.

A woman poses in front of a large excavation site, where workers stand on a grid system of beams over the remains of a shipwreck. The nearest quadrants contain tightly stacked bowls.

Archaeologist Lisa Niziolek visits the excavation site of the Nanhai No. 1 Shipwreck in China, which is from the same time period as the Java Sea Shipwreck and carried a similar cargo of ceramics.

Courtesy of Lisa C. Niziolek

Along with curator of the collection Dr. Gary Feinman and other colleagues at the Field Museum, in China, and elsewhere, Niziolek uses new details to refine what we know about the shipwreck. Where did objects like ceramics, resins, and ivory originate? Who made different pieces of pottery—and when and where? Even the ship’s “start” and “end” points have complex answers. The crew could’ve switched over several times during the journey, picking up or unloading goods along the way. 

The ship and its contents paint a picture of one moment along a sophisticated trade route spanning thousands of miles from China, Southeast Asia, India, and eastern Africa.

Globalization isn’t just a recent phenomenon—it’s not just Eurocentric, not just tied to modern capitalism. The ancient world was more interconnected than a lot of people thought.

Gary Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology

From seafloor to museum 

After fishermen first spotted the Java Sea Shipwreck in the 1980s, looters illegally removed items from the site. (Unfortunately, this is not uncommon for shipwrecks and other archaeological sites.) In 1996, a commercial salvage company, Pacific Sea Resources, worked with underwater archaeologist Dr. Michael Flecker to excavate the wreck. They were able to map the wreck site and document and retrieve materials that remained. 

Before most of the ship’s wood disintegrated long ago, the iron on the ship started to corrode and mix with sand and minerals to form concretions: irregular lumps that act like concrete by absorbing or attaching to other materials. These concretions formed a “map” of the vessel’s structure. Plus, like the Nanhai No. 1, the Java Sea Shipwreck cargo was probably tightly packed like a Tetris game, with no space spared. Bowls and small ceramics were likely nestled in larger jars with hay or other soft organic material, aiding in their preservation. 

Pacific Sea Resources recovered about 12,000 artifacts, and more than 7,500 were donated to the Field Museum under former curator of Asian archaeology and ethnology, Dr. Bennet Bronson. The majority—about 6,000 objects—consists of what Niziolek affectionately calls “IKEA bowls.” They’re simple ceramic bowls, all about the size and shape of your average cereal bowl. 

There are smaller numbers of other ceramic objects: black bowls used for tea; boxes with decorated lids; small vases with a bluish-white glaze; larger pitchers with detailed handles; and bowls with more elaborate designs. You can also see some objects from the wreck on display in the Cyrus Tang Hall of China at the Field.

"Made in China"

Twenty years after the ship’s contents arrived at the Field, Niziolek and her colleagues had a breakthrough that moved back the date of the shipwreck—possibly by 100 years. An inscription on some of the pottery included a name for an area in China that was only used before a certain date: 1278, when the Mongols invaded. Earlier investigations suggested the ship sank in the mid- to late-1200s. Using this equivalent of a “Made in China” label as a clue, the research team now believes the ship went down as early as 1162.

Gloved hands hold a gray and black “X-ray” gun, which resembles a larger version of a barcode reader. The gun is held to a small, round piece of pottery resting on a cushion. Two similar pottery pieces sit in a box nearby.

Using portable X-ray fluorescence to analyze a qingbai piece through the Field’s Elemental Analysis Facility.

Technology also plays a key role in understanding objects’ origins. One tool of the trade? Something that looks like an X-ray gun. 

Portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) analysis involves directing a beam of energy at an object, like a piece of pottery, to detect the energy signatures of the elements that make up the object. This may sound like something from science fiction, but it’s a very real and relatively quick, inexpensive way to get compositional information about an object. It’s also nondestructive, making it great for working with museum artifacts.

While many of the ship’s ceramic pieces look similar in style or color, their elemental makeups reveal key differences. Wenpeng Xu, a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of Illinois, worked with Niziolek and Feinman to use pXRF to identify different compositional signatures of various pieces. The results pinpointed specific kiln sites in China where different pieces were made—over 2,000 miles away from where the ship sank. The team is also working with Professor Huan Xiong from Sun Yat-Sen University in China to identify kilns where the trade wares were made. 

A man crouches on a hillside where the ground is entirely covered by pottery sherds. Green shrubbery is in the background.

Wenpeng Xu visited several “dragon” kiln sites in China—large kiln complexes that snaked down hillsides hundreds of years ago. Pieces of spacers and saggers, clay boxes used to protect ceramics in firing, still cover the ground today.

Kai Li

What’s next? 

Niziolek plans to take a closer look at some of the Java Sea Shipwreck objects found in lesser quantities, including earthenware stoves that crew and travelers on board the ship would’ve used. There are also kendis, vessels that have no handles and might have been used in Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim rituals.

The research team is also working with colleagues at the Field and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to conduct DNA analysis on elephant tusks from the wreck site. The results will show whether the ivory is from African or Asian species, filling in additional details regarding trade networks during this time.  

“Not a lot of museums have shipwreck collections that are available for research and exhibition,” says Niziolek. The volume of the Java Sea Shipwreck collection, from those humble “IKEA” bowls to elaborate one-of-a-kind vases, continues to give a rare look into how one ship played a role in an intricate seaborne network of interaction and commerce more than 500 years ago.

People often refer to shipwrecks as time capsules, but the Java Sea Shipwreck is more than just that. A time capsule represents a moment frozen in time, but that ignores the way these results reveal these vast and changing socioeconomic networks.

Lisa Niziolek, Boone Research Scientist of Asian Anthropology