Shipwreck reveals ancient market for knock-off consumer goods
Monday February 11, 2019. 05:20 PM , from Ars Technica
Enlarge / Archaeologists use a portable X-ray fluorescence detector to analyze 900-year-old artifacts. (credit: Xu et al. 2019)
Sometime in the late 12th century CE, a merchant ship laden with trade goods sank off the coast of Java. The 100,000 ceramic vessels, 200 tons of iron, and smaller amounts of ivory, resin, and tin ingots offer a narrow window onto a much broader world of global trade and political change. The merchant vessel that sank in the Java Sea was the pointy tip of a very long spear, and a new study sheds some light on the trade networks and manufacturing industry hidden behind its cargo—all thanks to a little help from a cool X-ray gun.
Sailing ancient trade routes
There was a network of trade routes that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and South China Sea by the late 12th century, linking Song Dynasty China to far-flung ports in Japan and Southeast Asia to the east, Indonesia to the south, and the Middle East and eastern Africa to the west. Merchant ships carried crops, raw materials like metals and resin, and manufactured goods like ceramics along these routes. Today, ceramics are a common sight in shipwrecks in these waters, partly because the material outlasts most other things on the seafloor, and partly because of the sheer volumes that could be packed into the holds of merchant ships from around 800 CE to 1300 CE.
Archaeologists have found Chinese ceramics at sites stretching from Japan to the east coast of Africa. And excavations in Southeast China have unearthed several kiln complexes, each with hundreds of dragon kilns—long tunnels dug into hillsides, which could fire up to 30,000 ceramic pieces at a time—clustered into a few square kilometers. All that production was aimed at exporting ceramic bowls, boxes, and other containers to overseas markets. “Most ceramics from this region are seldom recovered from domestic settings in China and are almost exclusively found along the maritime trading routes,” Field Museum archaeologist Lisa Niziolek, a co-author on the study, told Ars Technica.
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