American schoolchildren are taught that the night in 1775 when the famous patriot Paul Revere waited for the signal to inform him whether the invading British were coming by land or by sea, he was told to watch for a lantern that would be hung in the steeple of Boston’s old North Church. “One if by land, and two if by sea” was the instruction.
I recall this now-mythic story every time, as an avid student and collector of Southeast Asian ceramics, I hear of a new discovery. “Land or sea?” is my first question. And increasingly, the answer is “by sea”, thanks to the work of today’s marine archaeologists.
This makes the appearance of an exciting and excellent new electronic publication, Wreckwatch Magazine, published by Norman Endicott, Brown Chair Vision & Time Analysts, all the more timely and welcome. At long last, we have an online magazine dedicated to the underwater world of shipwrecks and the stories they tell, and the men and women who can tell them.
It was one of Southeast Asia’s hardest working and most prodigious marine archaeologists, Dr. Michael Flecker, who set me straight when I asked why maritime archaeology had suddenly taken off long after I studied archaeology with the Biblical archaeologist G. Ernest Wright many decades ago.
Maritime archaeology didn’t take off …. Treasure hunting did. It was driven by oil and gas and marine engineering blokes who whet their appetite salvaging tin and rubber from WWII wrecks. Hatcher was very successful in mopping left-overs from post-war salvage – tin was worth a fortune then. He then led the treasure hunting charge with the so-called Hatcher junk and then the Geldermalsen. Local Indonesians joined the fray, starting with the Pulau Buay a wreck. Warren Blake was successful on a small and fun scale, mostly with tin from 19th-century ships. Bill Mathers was the counter to Hatcher, combining private enterprise with maritime archaeology for the 1987/88 excavation of a Manila galleon in Saipan. I learned the ropes working for Bill, and applied his model in Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia.
You can read more of Mike’s backstory in the current issue of Wreckwatch.
Sten Sjóstrand (d. 2020), another great marine archaeologist based in Southeast Asia, as Flecker is, started around the same time. I got to know Sten when researching the history of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society. In 1969, he and his wife left southern Sweden in a 10-foot long re-purposed bus to drive to Asia, having decided that the life of an ordinary Swedish engineer was not for him. He then spent the next twenty years in Singapore designing marine/offshore structures, which triggered his interest in marine archaeology. He went on to spend 27 years based out of Malaysia working with ancient Southeast Asian shipwrecks.
Although not a marine archaeologist, Professor John Miksic is a historian and archaeologist who has re-written Singapore history with his discoveries that the Lion City had a long and rich history as a port hundreds of years before Sir Stamford Raffles stepped on its shores. He can attest to the importance of the discoveries both land and marine archaeologists have made over the past decades and has been instrumental in teaching and training the incoming generation of Southeast Asian archaeologists.
Many of these discoveries were the focus of the 2021 Autumn issue of Wreckwatch Magazine, with articles written by Flecker (“Asian Wreckollections: Between Luck & Opportunity”) and a roster of who’s who in a wide variety of fields. There’s an interview with Peter Frankopan, author of the widely acclaimed The Silk Roads (2015) and The New Silk Roads: The Future and Present of the World (2018), in which he reveals that Journey to the West is one of his favourite reads, and shares some of the projects he’s currently working on. Sean Kingsley uses the story of Sinbad the Sailor to compare it with the sinking of the now-famous Tang Dynasty wreck, the Belitung, found in Singapore waters and the pride of Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum. The Changsha bowl found on board the wreck, featuring the earliest image of an Arab dhow on a Chinese bowl, is the subject of Nicolai von Uexküll’s article. Another famous name of marine archaeology, Horst Liebner, opens his tale of the Cirebon shipwreck with, “I imagine the end came in the dark of a stormy night.” North Asia is also covered in Professor Byung Keun Kim’s 12-page feature article “Birth of Korean Underwater Archaeology,” which includes the story of Korea’s most famous shipwreck, the Sinan. All in all, a brilliant issue that I devoured cover-to-cover and will share with many like-minded friends in the Asian history community.
The illustrations and photographs, many of them drawn or taken first-hand by the authors, are stunning, with many previously unseen. Another unexpected but long overdue feature is the magazine’s Bookshelf, which covers reviews of books and films relevant to those fascinated by the worlds of history, archaeology, and of course, shipwrecks. Reviewed in the August issue is the American author Alma Katsu’s The Deep; Terald Easter and Mara Vorhees’ The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece and a Legendary Shipwreck; and Robert D. Ballard and Christopher Drew’s Into the Deep: A Memoir from the Man who Found Titanic.
Previous issues featured major pieces on pirates, the Mediterranean, West and Central Asia. Newcomers to the site will find themselves falling down a rabbit hole of hours of fascinating reading, so rich are the earlier issues of this new publication.
Its editorial purpose states it is “a resource for education and entertainment … free to everyone.” Its too-cute motto is ‘Deep Down We Care”. The magazine was founded in 2020 by Dr. Sean Kingsley, who previously served as the managing editor of Minerva, an international review of ancient art and archaeology. He himself is a marine archaeologist, which explains the passion and expertise that this publication exudes. Five stars, or five sea turtles in the language of the magazine, to this excellent publication. Digital subscriptions are currently free, but be a good citizen and make a donation as we’ll want to see this magazine continue and flourish. Find it at: www.wreckwatchmag.com
Reviewed by Patricia Bjaaland Welch, author of Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery (Tuttle, 2018)