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2 shipwrecks — dating as far back as 600 years — found in Singapore waters, yielding trove of artefacts

SINGAPORE — Two historic shipwrecks, one dating back to the 14th century and the other to 1796, have been found in Singapore's waters near Pedra Branca, offering “invaluable” insights into the country's maritime past, researchers said on Wednesday (June 16).

A diver with a ceramic artefact recovered from the 14th century shipwreck found near Pedra Branca.

A diver with a ceramic artefact recovered from the 14th century shipwreck found near Pedra Branca.

  • Two old shipwrecks have been found near Singapore's waters
  • One dates back about 600 years, while the other sank in 1796
  • The researchers have found a rich trove of artefacts including cannons, ceramics and percussion instruments
  • The artefacts are set to be displayed in Singapore museums later this year

 

SINGAPORE — Two historic shipwrecks, one dating back to the 14th century and the other to 1796, have been found in Singapore's waters near Pedra Branca, offering “invaluable” insights into the country's maritime past, researchers said on Wednesday (June 16).

Archeological research is ongoing, and artefacts from the finds, including rare ceramics, cannons and percussion instruments, are set to be displayed at Singapore museums later this year, the National Heritage Board (NHB) and Iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute (Iseas) announced.

Details of the displays would be provided later, NHB said.

These are only the second and third historic shipwrecks ever discovered in Singapore’s waters, after that of World War II ship Empress of Asia, which was sunk by Japanese aircraft in 1942 and recovered in 2010.

The first shipwreck dated back around 600 years and is about 100m northwest of the rocky outcrop that forms Pedra Branca. Excavations unearthed Chinese ceramics such as Longquan green-ware dishes and blue-and-white bowls.

Sorting artefacts on board the recovery vessel: Photo: Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute

Pedra Branca was regarded as treacherous by seafarers and was home to Singapore’s earliest lighthouse. It lies 65km east of mainland Singapore.

Dr Michael Flecker, project director of maritime archaeology projects at Iseas, said that the vessel carried the largest Yuan dynasty blue-and-white porcelain haul ever recovered in a documented shipwreck.

Many of these artefacts are rare pieces and one — a blue-and-white bottle with a flanged straight neck — is believed to be unique, he said. Dr Flecker added that they have not sought a commercial valuation for this bottle, which was made at the Jingdezhen kilns in China.

Cargo from the second wreck contained more diverse artefacts from the late 18th century such as percussion instruments and glass beads.

Four anchors and nine cannons — typically mounted on merchant ships employed by the East India Company and used mostly for defensive purposes and signalling — were also retrieved from this site.

ACCIDENTAL FIND

The researchers said that the wrecks came to light through happenstance.

In 2015, commercial divers came across ceramic plates in a dive operation related to the removal of scraps of old cranes near Pedra Branca. During one of their post-diving dinners, they saw on television that similar ceramic plates had also been excavated at Express Place, and decided to approach NHB and Iseas.

The next year, excavations to recover the first shipwreck started and lasted until 2019. It is impossible to determine the origin of the ship, Dr Flecker said, as there are no surviving hull remains. He added that ships, particularly those from Asia, probably did not have names during that period.

A cannon is recovered from the site of a vessel that sank in 1796. Photo: Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute

Surveys of the immediate vicinity around Pedra Branca led to excavators chancing upon the second wreck, which has been identified as the India-built merchant vessel Shah Munchah that sank in 1796 while voyaging from China back to India.

This wreck was discovered 300m east of Pedra Branca and a series of excavations to recover artefacts was carried out from 2019 to mid-2021.

Dr Flecker, who has more than 30 years of experience in maritime archaeology, said: “Had (the Shah Munchah) survived another 23 years, she would most certainly have called at the re-established port of Singapore.”

He was referring to Sir Stamford Raffles’ decision in 1819 to establish a port at Singapore.

“Her incredibly diverse cargo provides great insights into the type of goods that would have been exchanged and purchased by the new inhabitants of this fledgling city,” he added.

As there were no claims to the wrecks and their artefacts at the end of the one-month notice period stipulated by the Merchant Shipping Act, they were claimed by Singapore.

Artefacts from the two wrecks are now being stored at NHB and Iseas facilities where they will be cleaned, conserved and catalogued.

Mr Yeo Kirk Siang, NHB's director of heritage research and assessment, said: “What is significant about (the two shipwrecks) is that they unveil part of our history before 1819.

“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, reflecting the interconnectivity of pre-19th century Singapore."

He added: “Every archaeological excavation enriches our understanding. Singapore’s history is clearly connected to our maritime trade in the past, and even today.

“We will continue to research on the significance of the artefacts and find ways to promote the knowledge, so as to enable more people to learn about them and Singapore’s maritime history.”

Related topics

nhb history Heritage Pedra Branca maritime history shipwreck

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