How an ‘X-Ray Gun’ Is Telling Us More About the Java Sea Shipwreck

Researchers used X-ray fluorescence to find the origins of porcelain recovered from the vessel to help pinpoint which port the ship first departed from

Porcelain Ray Gun
Researchers examine porcelain from the Java Sea Ship wreck using their "ray gun." Field Museum. Photographer Kate Golembiewski.

For years, archaeologists have been studying artifacts from what’s become known as the Java Sea Shipwreck, a trading ship dating to the 12th or 13th century that was found off the coast of the Indonesian island in the 1980s.

There is no record of where the ship came from or where it was going before it sunk so researchers have attempted to piece the story together using the artifacts recovered. Some 7,500 of which—including some of the 30 tons of ceramics onboard—were donated to the Field Museum in Chicago in the late 1990s.

Fortunately, pottery is a lingua franca of archaeology. Researchers can use it to determine the cultures that inhabited a site, when they lived there, and in some cases even what they ate and drank. For a team at the Field Museum, they were recently able to use the ship's pottery to dig a little deeper into the story of the wreck. They did so with the aid of an exciting gadget, a portable X-ray fluorescence detector they're fittingly dubbing an "X-ray gun."

Using the tech, the team examined 60 pieces of the fine blue-white glazed qingbai porcelain found in the Java Sea wreck for a study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The team looked at three different types of porcelain found in the shipwreck. “You're shooting X-rays into a material you’re interested in,” explained co-author Lisa Niziolek, Field Museum Boone Research Scientist, in a release. That’s because each piece of pottery has a unique chemical composition based on the clay and other materials used to produce it. By comparing the chemical signatures of unknown pottery with a database of pieces that come from a known kiln, researchers can pinpoint the ceramic's origins.

The X-rays indicated that much of the pottery originated in kiln complexes found in northern Fujian province at Jingdezhen, Dehua, Shimuling, Huajiashan and Minqing, which are closer to the port of Fuzhou.

The results tell a slightly different tale than the working theory around the shipwreck proposed last June, when researchers released a study suggesting the ship had sailed from Quanzhou in southeast China, one of the world’s largest ports at the time. The location was supported by identifying stamps on two ceramic boxes recovered from the wreck.

Now, researchers believe the Java Shipwreck ship likely started in Fuzhou, taking on the bulk of its cargo there before sailing to Quanzhou to pick up ceramics from that regions kilns before sailing 2,000 miles to Indonesia.

The shipwreck highlights the massive, complex trade network that stretched across southern Asia 800 years ago. “We’re finding that the scale and complexity of exchange networks is greater than anticipated,” Niziolek tells Mindy Weisberger at LiveScience. “For people educated to think that large-scale trade networks are only associated with modern Western capitalism, this shipwreck can really challenge those notions.”

And the shipwreck itself overturns notions that such sites are isolated time capsules. Instead, the shipwreck is a window into entire system or relationships historians didn’t know existed. “It’s almost the opposite of a nice, bounded time capsule,” co-author Gary Feinman, Field Museum MacArthur Curator of Anthropology, says in the release. “It’s more like a window that opens up to a wide horizon and tells us how this material came onto this ship before it sank.”

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