Hoi An Hoard, Part Three - The Theories
When 244,000 pieces of porcelain were finally excavated from a shipwreck off the Hoi An coast of Vietnam in 1999, it was relatively easy for archaeologists to trace the source of the pottery to one of the country's northern regions. The ship, on the other hand, took a little more time.
A human skull found on the shipwreck indicated that the sailing junk had originated in Thailand. "But we're not certain," says Mensun Bound, head of the Oxford University marine archaeology department that oversaw the excavation of the wreck. "This was more of a process of elimination. The skull certainly wasn't Vietnamese, it certainly wasn't Chinese, so..."
Although it's still considered speculation -- based on the shape of the skull, for one -- it's not an unsubstantiated theory. Written records tell of Thai traders in Vietnamese ports as early as the mid-1300s. They sailed as far north as Japan, exchanging items such as sandalwood and deerskin for goods that could be sold throughout Southeast Asia.
Another aspect of the Hoi An Hoard that scholars have not yet confirmed is the cause of the shipwreck. Pirates, of course, are the most romantic possibility, and they would have been a logical conclusion were it not for the gold and other valuables found in the cargo. In the end, evidence points toward a more ordinary, but still devastating, finale. The ship was top-heavy, and nuts on board suggest it left its northern port late in the year -- these two elements support an assumption that the junk capsized while fleeing one of the Dragon Sea's many temperamental outbursts.
If this was the case, the ship would have been heading for Cham Island, or possibly Hoi An. During the 1400 and 1500s, when the shipwreck is estimated to have occurred, Hoi An was one of Vietnam's most prestigious trading centers. One reason for its thriving maritime trade was the weather -- accommodating trade winds and a providential storm season.
Forced to seek shelter for their expensive goods, traders would guide their ships up the Thu Bon River to the haven provided by Hoi An's ports. Ancient Persian and Arab texts praised it as an exceptional place for ships to stock up on fresh provisions. And its popularity with western traders made it a convenient place for European merchants to congregate with their Siamese, Chinese and Japanese counterparts while they waited out the storms.
That this theory is the most likely is what makes it all the more fascinating, raising an entirely new set of questions. The junk was so close to safety. What would have happened to the porcelain if the ship had made it safely to Hoi An? How many pieces would have survived? Would there have been enough to reveal, as the collection in full does, the magnitude of Vietnam's fifteenth-century production and trading capabilities?
Unlike the source of the ship and the cause of its tragic end, these are questions that will never find conclusive answers. But -- along with many other facets of this shipwreck -- they will no doubt instigate spirited debate for years to come.
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Published on 2/14/03