5. Dating the Ship

Text by Michael Flecker, underwater & onsite photographs courtesy PT Cosmix Asia, all other illustrations and photos by the author


The dating of pre-colonial Asian ships has always been difficult as there are no archives containing ship’s names, manifests, or survivor’s reports before the arrival of the Europeans. Instead dates have to be deduced from the stylistic analysis of ceramics, coin dates, and radiocarbon dating.

Overall, the ceramics from the Lingga Wreck seem to be products of the Northern Song dynasty. This covers the period from 960 to 1127 CE, a 167 year range. As substantial quantities of copper or copper-alloy artefacts were found on the wreck, it is unlikely to date to the Southern Song period (1127 to 1279 CE) when the export of copper was to a large extent banned, although smuggling was always possible.

Hundreds of Chinese copper coins have been recovered from the wreck, representing several periods:

  • Huang Song Tong Bao (皇宋通寳): 1039–1053 CE
  • Xi Ning Zhong Bao (熙寧重寳): 1068–1077 CE
  • Yuan Feng Tong Bao (元豐通寳): 1078–1085 CE
  • Yuan You Tong Bao (元祐通寳): 1086–1094 CE
  • Zheng He Tong Bao (政和通宝): 1111–1117 CE

The coins give a terminus post quem, or earliest possible date for the wreck, but as Chinese coins are known to have been kept in circulation for centuries, that is all the dating information they can provide. The terminus post quem for the Lingga Wreck is 1111 CE.

Chinese coins marked Xi Ning Zhong Bao, 1068-1077 CE.
Figure 68: Chinese coins marked Xi Ning Zhong Bao, 1068-1077 CE.

A wood sample from the Lingga Wreck has been radiocarbon dated in a laboratory in Japan. The calibrated 2 sigma (95% probability) date for the sample is 946 to 1019 CE, spanning a 73 year period. The date range is narrower than that provided by the overall stylistic analysis of ceramics, but it is still broad, and obviously inconsistent with the coin dates. Indeed, based on the coin dates the radiocarbon date has to be dismissed as not being relevant to the dating of the wreck. Perhaps the inner growth rings of an old tree were analysed, although this would imply that the tree selected for ship construction was at least a century old when it was felled. Perhaps the sample was from ancient driftwood, and not part of the ship’s structure at all.

The Lingga Wreck has many ceramic parallels with the nearby Pulau Buaya Wreck, which can be broadly dated to the late 11th or early 12th century. Of particular note are Guangdong-wares such as folded rim bowls, basins and ewers from the Xicun kilns, and decorated jars from the Chaozhou Bijiashan kilns. Brown or brown-green glazed storage jars with impressed floral motifs on the shoulder were also found on both wrecks and are likely to be products of the Nanhai Qishi kilns in Guangdong province. A jar rim found at this kiln site has impressed Chinese characters providing the year of production, “the sixth year of the Zheng He reign” (政和六年), equivalent to 1116 CE (Lam 1985: 26).

The close association with the Pulau Buaya Wreck may be taken a step further. That wreck contained several examples of a fine qingbai bowl with a cross-hatched decoration on the exterior and remnants of silver mounting adhering to the unglazed rim. These are known locally as “Haji-cap” bowls due to their close resemblance to the dome-shaped headgear worn by pilgrims to Mecca. An example of this type was found at a Chinese tomb that is dated 1127 CE (Peng Shifan 1998: 57). The tomb, belonging to Madam Zhang, was located in Wuyuan county in Jiangxi province, adjacent to the Jingdezhen production centre where these bowls were made.

Qingbai ‘Haji cap’ bowl excavated from a tomb dated to 1127 CE (Peng 1998:57), identical to bowls from the Pulau Buaya and Flying Fish Wrecks.
Figure 69: Qingbai ‘Haji cap’ bowl excavated from a tomb dated to 1127 CE (Peng 1998:57), identical to bowls from the Pulau Buaya and Flying Fish Wrecks.

The “Haji-cap” bowl also establishes a strong link between the Pulau Buaya Wreck and the lashed-lug Flying Fish Wreck (Flecker and Tai, 2019), which was recently found off the west coast of Sabah, East Malaysia. Other parallels include lobed ewers, Longquan-type celadon bowls, and qingbai covered-boxes with moulded caracters on their bases, all from Fujian kilns. Small-mouthed brownware jars, bronze gongs and anklets, cast-iron cauldrons, and wrought-iron bars were found on all three wrecks. While these trade commodities are too ubiquitous to draw conclusions on dating, the contemporaneous link between the Lingga Wreck and the Flying Fish Wreck can be clearly established through unique ceramic parallels with the intermediary Pulau Buaya Wreck. This is important as the solid radiocarbon dating results for the Flying Fish Wreck may now be brought to bear. Two timber samples provide 2-sigma ranges of 1065 to 1155 CE and 1081 to 1152 CE, which clearly validate each other. The Lingga Wreck terminus post quem of 1111 CE coincides with the peak probabilities on both of these dating bell-curves.

Occasionally we are blessed with additional and precise dating evidence. On the famous Belitung Wreck, an Arab dhow carrying a Chinese cargo, an engraved inscription on a Changsha bowl gave a precise date equivalent to 826 CE (Flecker 2017a: 32). This was consistent with radiocarbon dating of organic artefacts, coin dates, and the stylistic analysis of the ceramics cargo.

The Lingga Wreck seemed to have been equally blessed, in this case with iron-brown painted bowls. These were made at or near the well-known Xicun kilns in Guangdong. Most have a simple floral decoration, however, at least two are painted with four Chinese characters that define a cyclical date.

Scholar, Roberto Gardellin, Mr Koh, of Koh Antiques in Singapore, and Sinologist, Professor Victor Mair, interpret the characters as Zhi He Yuan Nian (至和元年), the “first year of the Zhi He reign”, equivalent to 1054 CE1. They are fully aware that this date is not consistent with the coin dates. Perhaps the bowls were ‘antiques’, being at least 57 years old when shipped. While there may be some precident for exporting high value antique objects2, this seems an unlikely practice for provincial ceramics. Bear in mind that the entire batch of Xicun painted wares was most likely shipped together, rather than just the few with the dating design.

The Belitung Wreck date was etched into the wet clay of a bowl, whereas the Lingga Wreck bowls are painted with the date as a decoration. If this decoration proved popular for some reason, perhaps it was applied well beyond the date itself.

Painted bowl decorated with the date, Zhi He Yuan Nian, equivalent to 1054 CE.
Figure 70: Painted bowl decorated with the date, Zhi He Yuan Nian, equivalent to 1054 CE.

Ceramics specialist, Dr Tai Yew Seng, suggests that the first character could be interpreted as 政 (Zheng), rather than 至 (Zhi). The “first year of the Zheng He reign” is equivalent to the year 1111 CE. For this theory to be valid, a homonym 正 (zheng) must have been used instead of 政 (zheng). Furthermore, a variation of the homonym must have been chosen, and written in cursive script. While this date is consistent with the coin dates, ceramic comparisons, and the radiocarbon dates of the contemporaneous Flying Fish Wreck, it is not supported by concensus.

Regardless of the bowl date, there is sufficient evidence to conclusively date the Lingga Wreck to the last few years of the Northern Song dynasty (1111 to 1127 CE). This relatively precise period renders the Lingga cargo a particularly valuable reference collection for archaeologists and art historians.

1.The author relies entirely on expert opinion for the interpretation of Chinese characters.

2.The c.826 CE Belitung Wreck contained antique bronze mirrors that predating the sinking by hundreds of years (Louis, 2017: 211).