Shipwrecked ceramics

Asian ceramics have been the subject of international and inter-Asian trade for over one thousand years. The bulk of these ceramics were transported by ship, through very dangerous waters. Many of these ships never made it to their final destinations and were lost at sea.

Bottle from the Turiang shipwreck, unknown, late 14th century-15th century, Thailand. Museum no. IS.100-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shipwrecked cargoes of ceramics survive relatively well in the sea, even over long periods. Excavating wrecks from centuries ago tells us what was being shipped in what quantities and along which trade routes, revealing the tastes and fashions for ceramics at the time.

The V&A has a significant collection of ceramics retrieved from shipwrecks including some from three known ships which sank in the South China Sea between 1400 and 1725. They illustrate the trading of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese wares to the Philippines, Indonesia and, in the case of the Ca Mau wreck, Europe too.

The Turiang shipwreck

Jar from the Royal Nanhai shipwreck, unknown, late 14th-early 15th century, Thailand. Museum no. IS.75-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Around 1400, a Chinese 'junk' (sailing ship) sank off the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula. The ship was probably sailing from Ayutthaya, then capital of Thailand, to Indonesia. The cargo was stoneware, mostly with green and brown glazes, from Thailand (57%), southern China (35%) and Vietnam (8%).

The Royal Nanhai shipwreck

Over 20,000 ceramics were discovered in a vessel found north of the Turiang wreck. The Royal Nanhai's cargo consisted almost entirely of green- and brown-glazed stonewares of 1450-1500 made at Si Satchanalai in Thailand. The wares were probably being shipped to Indonesia. The discovery shows the success of the Si Satchanalai kilns in supplying this trade.

Stoneware from the Turiang shipwreck, 14th-16th centuries, Thailand and Vietnam. Museum nos. IS.91-2002, IS.101-2002, IS.102-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Ca Mau shipwreck

In 1998 fishermen uncovered the wreck of a Chinese junk near Ca Mau in southern Vietnam. The ship probably sank around 1725 en route from Canton (Guangzhou) to the Dutch trading port of Batavia (Jakarta) in Indonesia. About 130,000 ceramics from this wreck were salvaged from the seabed. The bulk of the cargo, mostly tea bowls and saucers, was destined for Europe, but some was intended for Asian markets.

Among them was a curious object. A number of underglaze blue decorated porcelain pieces, mass produced in Jingdezhen, Southern China in the early 18th century, had become fused together in a fire onboard ship - the likely cause of the wreck. Lying on the seabed, corals and shells grew on the fused pieces, creating the so-called 'sea-sculpture', a product of both accident and nature.

'Sea sculpture' from the Ca Mau shipwreck, unknown, about 1725, China. Museum no. FE.7-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London