A Gulf shipwreck will next month yield its cache of Siamese ivory. What else waits to be found?
Though hundreds of kilometres from the coast, Siam’s old capital Ayutthaya was hardly a backwater. Beginning in the 16th century, Portuguese traders plying the Indian-Malay spice route decided the effort to reach it, sailing up the Chao Phraya River, was amply worthwhile.
But quite a few of their cargo-laden ships didn’t make it far on the voyage home, sinking instead in the Gulf of Siam.
What Erbprem Vatcharangkul has discovered on dives to those ill-fated vessels makes him confident that Ayutthaya was one of Asia’s more significant commercial hubs, with commodities from Japan and China being exchanged for others from India, the Middle East and Africa.
He’s salvaged enough to confirm Ayutthaya’s stature as one of the region’s richest cities.
Yet Erbprem – director of the underwater-archaeology division in the government’s Fine Arts Department – believes there is much more to learn about Ayutthaya’s exports among the detritus lying all-but-forgotten on the seabed.
“I believe Ayutthaya served as an important trading station, filled with middlemen,” he says. It had several kinds of attractive commodities of its own as well as those brought in from afar.”
Having led deep-sea diving missions for 40 years in search of clues to Ayutthaya’s history at several wreck sites in the Gulf, Erbprem has found a great quantity of exports that never made it to their destinations.
Important wrecks bearing Ayutthaya cargo can be found in the waters off Pattani, Songkhla, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Surat Thani, Chumphon and Prachuab Khiri Khan.
The divers have recovered pepper, tamarind seeds, pottery and ivory from the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods. Where, though, is the gold?
Gold appears often in Ayutthaya’s official export documents now archived in Portugal, along with iron, silver, aluminium, tin, sapphire, saltpetre and sulphur, and yet none of these things have been found in the holds of the Gulf wrecks.
The old bills of lading also named agar wood, olibanum, lac, indigo, cotton and ivory among the Siamese goods coming into Portugal. And historical accounts indicate there were coastal forests here that were harvested for their Caesalpinia and rosewood, which together filled 100 junks per year destined for China, Hakka, the Ryukyu Islands, Cambodia and Champa. There was also an abundance of beeswax, honey and sugar.
Having scrutinised the foreign accounts, Erbprem searched for the huge supplies they listed, but in four decades he’s found only the most common products – pepper, tamarind, pottery and porcelain.
Far from disappointed, he’s thrilled to have recovered pepper and tamarind that still retain their pungent aroma and taste.
“The tamarind still tastes sour after 500 years underwater. The pepper still looks exactly like it does in any market today,” he says.
“There are many fragments of pottery and porcelain, but many of the items are also intact, just as though they were hot from the kiln. They look very new to me!”
Anyone can join him in marvelling at these items at the National Maritime Museum in Chanthaburi.
Erbprem was further delighted to be able to track much of the Ayutthaya Period pottery to the kilns along the Noi River in Singburi, whose craftsmen supplied the nearby capital.
Their pots were the containers for the goods shipped abroad, and there are many samples in European museums, attesting to the intensity of Ayutthaya’s commerce with Europe as far back as the 16th century.
Erbprem has only dived to wrecks in Thai waters, but he’s established that Ayutthaya pots travelled as far as the Seychelles and St Helena Islands, where they gather silt in more sunken ships.
“Our pottery is sunk off the coast of Kenya, too,” he says. “But the pottery at the National Maritime Museum in Lisbon amazes me the most. It travelled the greatest distance from Ayutthaya.”
He can spot a Siamese pot easily from the style. It sets them apart from other Asian ceramics, even though the Portuguese museum categorises all of it as “Martaban” – its catch-all term for any pottery originating further east than India.
And among the rough clay pots is fine Siamese porcelain, Erbprem says.
“It really is quite unusual to find Siamese porcelain in Lisbon. Originally only China made porcelain, but for a time it stopped producing it, so the artisans in Ayutthaya made it, copying the Chinese style, and this was exported overseas – to Malacca, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.”
The most precious Ayutthaya cargo that Erbprem has found in the sea is ivory – elephant tusks in a calcified hoard near a wreck off Chonburi province’s Kram Island in 1974.
There are tonnes of it, he says, spread out on the seabed over an area about three by five metres. The junk carrying it sank in a storm. And Erbprem is determined to bring it back up, starting next month.
“It’s a very precious cargo. I’ve always wanted to bring it to the surface and place it at the maritime museum, but it’s a difficult mission.
“We believe the tusks came from our own elephants in Ayutthaya, but we don’t know where they were being taken. We need to salvage the cargo, because if it’s left there it might be stolen by antique collectors.”