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Shipwreck reveals an old market for knock-off consumer goods



  Photo of a portable X-ray fluorescence detector
Enlarge / Archaeologists use a portable X-ray fluorescence detector to analyze 900-year-old artifacts.

Xu et al. 2019

Sometime in the late 12th century, a merchant ship loaded with merchandise sank off the coast of Java. The 1

00,000 ceramic jars, 200 tons of iron and smaller quantities of ivory, resin and tin ingots provide a close window to a much wider world of global trade and political change. The merchant ship, which sank in the Java Sea, was the tip of a very long spear, and a new study illuminates the trading networks and the manufacturing industry hiding behind its cargo – all thanks to the help of a cool X-ray gun.

Sailing Ancient Trade Routes

There was a network of trade routes that crossed the Indian Ocean and South China Sea until the late 12th century linking the Song Dynasty China with distant harbors in Japan and Southeast Asia in the east , Indonesia in the south and the Middle East and East Africa in the west. Merchant ships transported crops on these routes, raw materials such as metals and plastics and produced goods such as ceramics. Ceramics are a common sight today in shipwrecks in these waters, partly because the material outlives most of the other things on the sea floor, and partly because of the sheer volume that could be packed into the hold of merchant ships from 800 to 1300 oc.

Archeologists have found Chinese pottery in locations spanning from Japan to the east coast of Africa. Excavations in southeast China revealed several kiln complexes, each with hundreds of dragon kilns – long tunnels dug into slopes and able to fire up to 30,000 pieces of pottery simultaneously – grouped in a few square miles. All production was designed to export ceramic bowls, boxes and other containers to overseas markets. "Most ceramics in this region are rarely salvaged in China and are found almost exclusively along the maritime trade routes," said archaeologist Lisa Niziolek, a co-author of the study, to Ars Technica.

Of-the-line material called Qingbai came from a complex called Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province: fine vessels with translucent light blue glaze over a smooth white outer paste. However, throughout China, furnace equipment has created a booming market for Qingbai. In particular, Fujian Province kilns exposed thousands of imitated Qingbai ships – of lesser quality but much higher in volume. Last year, a label on a ceramic box from the Java Sea Wreck led to the provincial capital of Fujian.

In the past, Fujian had many furnace complexes scattered over a wide area, and many of their goods looked pretty similar to the point after all). To find out which furnace complexes delivered the cargo of the Java Sea Wreck, the archaeologist Wenpeng Xu and his colleagues had to look at the chemical fingerprints of the thin bluish glazes of ancient pottery. Here comes the X-ray gun – technically referred to as a portable X-ray fluorescence detector – into play.

Archeologists with beam guns

When X-rays hit something – such as a 900-year-old ceramic shell – the atoms in the shell tend to fluoresce or emit energy in the form of photons. Each chemical element tends to emit photons at its own unique frequency. By counting the photons of different frequencies, an XRF detector can "read" the chemical composition of an object. In this case, Xu and his colleagues were interested in the glaze – the thin outer layer – of ceramics from the shipwreck of Java Sea and four furnace plants in southeast China: Jingdezhen, Dehua, Huajiashan and Minqing.

In their analysis they investigated The chemical signature of some ceramics from the furnace complexes found that each site has its own signature, a combination of the chemical composition of the local clay and the special recipe potters from which their pastes and glazes made become. Jingdezhen ceramic glazes tend to contain more iron and less thorium than others, while Dehua imitations contain more zinc and thorium and less iron.

Xu and his colleagues scanned 60 ceramic fragments from the wreckage, and their chemical signatures fell well below four separate groups, each corresponding to one of the four furnace complexes. It turned out that the ship designed for the Java Sea Wreck not only had a selection of genuine Qingbai ceramics for foreign ports, but also a wide variety of different types and quantities of knockoff products, Niziolek said as a surprise for the archaeologists.

"Finely made Qingbai goods from Jingdezhen make up only a very small percentage of the cargo," she told Ars Technica. "The bulk of the Qingbai goods came from furnaces in Fujian Province, which produced a large number of ceramics for export to markets in East and Southeast Asia and other parts of the Indian Ocean." And that shows that trade networks are much more complex Most archaeologists and historians suspect that the medieval Pacific connects most of the potters far inland in southeastern China with markets around the Indian Ocean.

An Unexpectedly Long Journey

Xu and his colleagues say the vessel contains the ship based on their findings It is likely that he stopped at Fuzhou Harbor to take ceramics from Jingdezhen, Minqing and Huajiashan by riverboat could have driven to the port. Then it would have gone 180 km south along the Chinese coast to the port of Quanzhou to pick up more goods from the furnace complex in Dehua. "The results of this study show that a large number of ceramics in the cargo were produced in ovens in northern Fujian, which are closer to the port of Fuzhou," Niziolek said to Ars.

If they are right, this means that Medieval The commercial captain deliberately chose to give the journey time and distance to bring a wider range of goods to the Indonesian market.

From China, archaeologists believe that the ship at that time drove to the bustling Javanese port of Tuban met his fate. It was not the first or the last ship lost in these waters. "Chinese pottery from this period was found in the area, and there are reports that many of them are shipwrecks off the coast," Niziolek told Ars. The crew undoubtedly knew the risks of a sea voyage, but it was unlikely that they would could imagine that centuries later half of their cargo would be kept in a museum in a city that did not exist.

This underlines how much archaeologists are still alive From a shipwreck excavated for the first time in the 1990s, you can see that the artefacts have been in the Field Museum since 1999. In 2011, Xu, Niziolek, and their colleagues launched a large-scale project to locate the sources of found objects

"These projects require a lot of resources, and many of them were collaborative, so it takes some time to find funding To conduct research and analysis and publish the results, "Niziolek told Ars." The work done on the Java Sea Shipwreck materials demonstrates the value of sustained in-depth research on an existing museum collection. "

Journal of Archaeological Science 2018th DOI: 10.1016 / j.jas.2018.12 .010; (Via DOIs).


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