'Sunken treasure' may evoke images of pirate chests filled with gold and silver strewn across the ocean floor, but over the last few decades the words have also come to represent something else altogether – ceramics. In the ancient world there were two dominating trade routes in Asia: the overland Silk Road and the Southeast China Sea Silk Route. During the Song dynasty (960-1279) maritime trade overtook overland trade, bolstered by improved technologies and the government's economic prosperity. The sea routes flourished, enabling the Chinese to trade with roughly 50 countries, exporting silk, tea, porcelain, brass and iron while bringing home various spices. The sea, however, proved treacherous and many ships never reached their destinations. The cargos they carried sank to the ocean floor, seemingly lost forever.
When a ship goes down, most of the cargo is destroyed, disintegrated or swept away by the currents. Ceramics, however, protected by their high-fired glazes and buried in silt can remain underwater virtually unaffected for many centuries. Most vessels were also stacked and stored inside larger earthenware pots, saving them from being shattered. In recent years, fishermen in the Java Sea have pulled up numerous ceramic works which have been sold at auction for millions of dollars, establishing their true value as sunken treasures.
The value of shipwrecked ceramics is not just measured in monetary terms – each wreck is a time capsule with invaluable hints to further our understanding of medieval Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics. Most trade ships did not carry cargos of Imperial Chinese porcelains, but rather elegant everyday plates, bowls, vases and vessels destined for middle class markets around the world. They are true representatives of the style and era in which they were created. From ceremonial Southeast Asian earthenware to the curious history-imbued mercury vessels, enjoy a treasure from centuries past, guarded at the bottom of the Java Sea and now available for your private collection.