|Sometimes the search and identification and, ultimately,
the successful recovery of shipwrecks and their cargo is the result of a collaboration
between different salvors, each of whom are able to contribute their particular skills,
experience and - importantly - gut feel to the project. Sometimes the collaboration does
not work out in terms of mutual gain, but, for Sverker Hallstrom, it is the chance to try
his hand at uncovering the mystery of an elusive shipwreck - and the thrill of discovery -
that motivates him. Often, though, as he recounts, "when it comes to sunken treasure,
the players are like kids in the sand box!"
The case of the 'Royal Nanhai'* - and another wreck, the 'Nanyang', which was
discovered as part of the same project - is an intriguing story of a search conducted in
partnership with acclaimed fellow researcher/salvor Sten Sjostrand. In fact, Sjostrand had
painstakingly prepared all the groundwork for what would prove to be a most frustrating,
but ultimately successful, project. He was convinced of the existence of shipwrecks in a
particular area in the South China Sea, but they could just not be found! It is thus also
owing to Hallstrom's intervention and expertise that two wrecks were eventually located;
with the facts at hand he had returned to the drawing board to re-think the areas in which
they might be resting.
*The 'Royal Nanhai' is the project name given to the
excavation of an otherwise nameless vessel, estimated to have sunk around 1440 - 1470. The
'Nanyang' is the project name given to a shipwreck (containing in its cargo Celadon
stoneware and clayware) found in Malaysian territorial waters.
The western and eastern 'Nanhai' trade routes were
established in 1340 by the Chinese, and followed for centuries thereafter. Both of these
routes started in China: one ended in Java, the other in Malacca. The 'Royal Nanhai' was,
according to researchers who could identify her typical features, a 'Royal Siam Junk'
participating in the coastal junk trade. Travelling the western sailing route and heading
south for the port of Tuban in Eastern Java, it appears she came into trouble off the
coast of Malaysia.
While there is no direct proof, it is likely that the
unusually long vessel broke in heavy sea, common for the Northeast monsoon in the South
China Sea. Heavily loaded with iron ore, iron ingots and pottery, it is possible that she
might have sprung a leak when pushed too hard by her crew. The ill-fated vessel and her
cargo thus came to rest on the seabed, only to be discovered about six centuries later.
The search for a particular wreck is often undertaken based
on the finds of fishermen who have stumbled upon "evidence" whilst trawling the
ocean's depths with their nets. In this instance, some fishermen had encountered snagging
points in certain areas in the South China Sea and had even pulled up with their catches
pieces of old porcelain. With the intensive information he gained from the fishermen, Sten
Sjostrand proceeded with further research. This entailed investigating different
historical sources and studying in great detail the traditional sailing routes and the
maritime trade pattern of the area. His findings highlighted several possible areas in
which wrecks were likely to be found.
Sverker Hallstrom entered into a joint venture with Sjostrand
in April 1994. The agreement was that Sjostrand would provide his boat, 'Cadenza', and
several divers, while Hallstrom would provide his boat, 'Talvas', a "Sea Owl"
ROV (with at least one ROV pilot/technician/surveyor), a side-scan sonar system, a track
plotter and other necessary equipment. Based on the information gathered by Sjostrand,
Hallstrom was to do his best to locate these snagging points and any other interesting
obstacles in the identified areas by using his side-scan system. If anything significant
was picked up by the sonar, the Sea Owl ROV would be deployed to identify the targets.
In May 1994, the first search party set off into the South
China Sea. By the end of June, the search and identification process had revealed nothing
but the remnants of what might have been a steel ship, or coral formations where
freshwater springs were present.
Hallstrom demobilized his boat and crew to Singapore at the
end of June. Sjostrand stayed behind, borrowing a "Hyball" ROV and a Mesotech
971 side-scan system from Hallstrom, and focusing particularly on the two areas where
pottery had been found (the positions of these two areas had at that time not been
revealed to Hallstrom).
After a consistantly hard search during July and August,
yielding no sign of the wrecks, Sjostrand was ready to give up. Still certain of their
existence, though, and convinced that the porcelain cargo both carried would be well worth
the effort, he persuaded Hallstrom to return in order to carry out a closer search.
Hallstrom now put his plans to mobilize to Lebanon on the shelf.
Sjostrand seemed particularly certain of one of the areas, on
which Hallstrom was urged to focus. However, a very careful combing of the area had again
revealed nothing. He had a strong feeling, though, that the shipwreck did in fact exist,
but in an adjacent area. He requested all the information Sjostrand possessed regarding
the former area, and set to work re-drawing his own idea of the wreck's position. The
search, this time, had some success. Within a week a wreck was located, at a depth of 54
meters. This was to be known as the 'Nanyang.'
It should be noted that without Sjostrand's carefully noted
observations it would not have been possible for Hallstrom to find this shipwreck.
According to the preliminary investigations carried out by Sjostrand, it seemed that the
vessel could have been about 18 meters long with a deckbeam of five meters. In a
preliminary judgement, it was estimated that the ship's cargo contained some 15 - 20 000
pieces of stoneware and a smaller quantity of clayware. The ship has not yet been
The search for the other wreck was continued. Hallstrom had
another strong feeling - that it might lie in an adjacent area to that which was first
searched. After again obtaining all the information he could from Sjostrand, he drew up a
new estimated position and the search was re-located there. Again, within a week of
extremely careful searching, Hallstrom was able to find the shipwreck. The day after the
find, Hallstrom dived on the wreck and picked up a box of porcelain, an exciting event
that was videotaped from the ROV. He was thus the first person to have touched this wreck
- the 'Royal Nanhai' - since she went down in the 15th Century, a moment that made all the
frustrations of the search worthwhile! Once again, Hallstrom acknowledges that the find
was owed to the prior research of Sjostrand, who completed the wreck's excavation.
|On his arrival in Singapore, Hallstrom had
taken his find to show a contact at Christie's, who confirmed that it was Thai Celadon
porcelain which was not estimated to be of very high value (one of the factors influencing
Hallstrom's decision not to participate in the 'Royal Nanhai' excavation, owing to the
fact that he had already spent an enormous amount of time and revenue on the search for
However, art historians, who have
for decades been interested in the ceramics of Southeast Asia, were to find the 'Royal
Nanhai' cargo of considerable significance. According to a booklet later published by
Sjostrand, the "'Royal Nanhai' presents...an important piece in the great puzzle of
constructing a chronology for specific Southeast Asian and Chinese trade ceramics. Its
artefacts and their documentation are an invaluable contribution to the discovery of
unwritten history all across the South China Sea."
Less than 20 percent of the 'Royal Nanhai' ceramics survived
with a quality suitable for meaningful display. Of these, a large portion was given to
various museums (the National Museum received 2 619 pieces and the Malacca Museum
Corporation, 420 pieces), providing for the continued study of Southeast Asian ceramics.
Some of the pieces have been sold by Sjostrand to private collectors, institutions and
others who, according to the booklet, "can appreciate their beauty and the historical
significance of their undersea provenance."
The pieces found as part of the 'Nanyang' cargo have proved
interesting in themselves as historical items. The Celadon stoneware is from Sawankhalok -
their forms and decoration indicating a manufacturing period pre-dating the wares of the
'Royal Nanhai' cargo. Several martavans were found that were much larger in size (120
liter capacity) than those found in the 'Nanhai' cargo (80 liters).
A significant number of these pieces will soon be available
to purchase via shipwreckexplorer.com, so please keep an eye on this page, as well as the Buy Online page, for the latest information.
Click on the thumbnails
below to view larger
images of some of
the precious 'Nanhai'
porcelain found on
the ocean floor.
reveal the effects of
the sea - over
centuries - on certain parts of the cargo.
here, clearly visible,
are traces of coral,
small shells and concreted sand.
Far from detracting
from the original
beauty of the pieces,
however, these effects
add a rare, quite special quality.