The Wreck Detectives
Vietnam was the coast that sank 1,000 ships.
The story of one of the world’s busiest ancient shipping routes is waiting to be discovered in its waters – but could treasure hunters get there first?
In the stillness of a burning hot day in June, a group of archaeologists crowds on to a motor boat to examine the shore of eight rocky islets.
These are the Cham Islands, renowned for tropical beaches, granite cliffs and the swallows now circling dizzily overhead.
Their names reflect their shape and character - one is called “East Wind”, another “Tomb”. That is the first clue to the history of these waters.
These are ship-wrecking seas, which is why the archaeologists have travelled to the tiny archipelago from the US, Australia and Japan.
They are here as wreck detectives.
Last year they arrived too late. The monsoon lashed the coast, and they could barely see across the narrow channel from the port of Hoi An, on the mainland, let alone sail across it.
But they were able to talk to marine rangers who patrol the surrounding Unesco biosphere reserve, and heard tales of strange objects lodged in the sea bed.
This year they have come earlier, before the monsoon, armed with permission to investigate.
As the boat enters a bay, the leader of the group stands alert, eyes squinting in the bright sunlight.
“Stop here. This place is interesting,” he says.
Australian Mark Staniforth would not have looked out of place at the helm of one of the schooners that careered through this channel 400 years ago.
In four decades as an underwater archaeologist he has learned how to read the coastline. For centuries, he says, ships must have moored in this bay for shelter from the wind.
“On a day like this, that’s fine,” he drawls.
But then you get a typhoon.”
He paints a picture of vessels suddenly vulnerable as they get pounded by waves. If a ship breaks anchor or if it cannot sail out of the bay it will end up dashed on the rocks or beached.
“At some stage in history, that happened. Probably several times,” he says.
Another clue is provided by a modern shipwreck - a rusting hulk embedded in the sand.
Nobody expects to chance on a wreck, but the members of the team slip into their diving suits, and then, like a pod of elegant deep-sea creatures, they disappear, leaving only bubbles popping on the surface.
All trained under Staniforth in the colder, darker waters off southern Australia and they have imbibed his respect for the tombs of the deep - every broken bit of ceramic, every plank of timber is important.
Suddenly there is excitement. In the distance they bob up and down handing objects to each other.
“There are reams of bowl remnants here,” one shouts.
Piled up, and jammed into the reef, they’ve found shards of pottery, brown terracotta, a sharp spike of ceramic with a grey-blue glaze, the base of tall red pot…
One shard, Staniforth says, could date from Vietnam’s 13th Century Tran dynasty.
When a ship goes down, often all that survives, centuries later, is ceramic - the rest becomes fodder for sea creatures.
Exhilarated, they return the objects to the sea bed, dutifully preserving the site for future study by Vietnam's Institute of Archaeology.
The spot was chosen almost at random, and yet it turned out to be a potential wreck site.
The next task is to talk to the people who know these waters best, the fishermen of the Cham Islands, who - the word has come through - are ready to meet.
They free-dive to impressive depths when they need to untangle their nets and, in so doing, may glimpse mysterious objects.
Unforthcoming at first, the fishermen slowly become more talkative.
“Just a few hundred metres away, we found some bowls,” says one, vaguely.
As the sky turns a ghostly grey, the archaeologists suddenly realise a storm is whipping up the channel, and rise to leave. One last question: “Did you ever see anything unusual under the water?”
Silence. Then the men break into vociferous talk. “Something like a huge water vessel made of stone. Just sitting on the sea bed,” says one.
Everyone sits back down.
The next day a fisherman called Tran Lang, guides the archaeologists to a spot where he says he once saw a long stone block lying on the sea floor.
Although he hasn't visited the site for years his sense of place is impeccable. It’s a channel between two rocky headlands where the current runs hard and strong - and sure enough the first divers to go down find a long shadow looming up through the water.
“It's a stone anchor stock,” says Jun Kimura, a specialist in ancient ship-building, as he returns to the surface, slightly stunned.
“Probably Chinese. Possibly 12th or 13th Century.”
Others have been found in south-east Asia, but not in Vietnam.
An anchor is not necessarily evidence of a shipwreck, but the surging waves in the channel also tell a story.
On a good day when the current is running, you will get blown down by the wind and go straight through like a cork in a bottle.”
“Someone got themselves in a mess and had to drop that anchor. Whether or not they crashed is another matter,” explains Staniforth.
The nearest headland is a mass of granite boulders. Dropping anchor so close to it would be an act of desperation.
The 'Ceramic Road'
The archaeologists’ successes in two days of diving on the Cham Islands were a mixture of skill and luck, but all the signs are that the coast of central Vietnam is unusually rich in wreckage.
When the light skitters playfully off the waters it seems as if nothing could go wrong, but the weather can turn in an instant.
There were nine typhoons in 2013 alone.
“It’s a shipwreck cemetery,” says Doan Huy Giao - the owner of a private museum on a hill overlooking the bay of Danang, just north of Hoi An.
Further south, in the province of Quang Ngai where Giao grew up, eight wrecks have been found on one beach alone.
Broken ceramics lined the shores of his childhood, and now, in retirement, he has amassed a vast collection of shipwreck antiques.
For more than 2,000 years merchant ships journeyed to the fertile spice islands - the Moluccas, east of Borneo - and from there to China, a land of silk, tea and the finest ceramics.
This has been called the maritime Silk Road, though many say it is really a Ceramic Road.
En route, vessels would hug the coast of Vietnam, staying anxiously within sight of land. Smaller boats carrying cheap pottery will have zigzagged from port to port.
Wooden Arabian dhows made the journey in the 9th and 10th Centuries. Much later, European clippers will have glided past, packed to the rafters.
But just as diving technology started making wreck-spotting easier, in the middle of last century, Vietnam was plunged first into war, then communist isolation.
To the outside world, it only became clear just how much was lurking underwater when the country began opening up in the 1990s.
The first celebrated find was the Vung Tau wreck in southern Vietnam, a 17th Century vessel bound for Europe with 48,000 pieces of ceramic, including some of the earliest milk jugs for the burgeoning European tea market.
Commercially excavated in 1991, just over half the pieces were auctioned by Christie’s for almost £4.7m ($7.3m).
Then, in the Cham Islands, came a discovery that became known as the Hoi An Hoard.
Fishing trawlers had begun to dredge up ethereally beautiful blue and white ceramics adorned with dragons, carp and elaborate floral decorations, which stood out in the markets of the port city.
When two Japanese art dealers were arrested trying to take artefacts out of the country, the government intervened and excavation began.
About a quarter of a million objects were brought up from what was likely to have been a Chinese trading vessel groaning with ceramics made at the famous medieval Chu Dao kiln in Vietnam - showing how Vietnamese craftsmen could be a match for their Chinese counterparts.
Vietnam kept the most important objects and the salvage company auctioned its share.
But this time the returns were not so impressive, and some objects can now be found on eBay for as little as £30 ($47).
While the Vung Tau ceramics and the Hoi An Hoard were both salvaged from Chinese trading vessels, there can be no doubt that there are European ships here too.
Records show that in the five centuries from 1500 AD Portugal, Spain, Britain, France and Holland all lost ships in Vietnamese waters.
Some went down around the Gulf of Tonkin, others in the treacherous - and now disputed - Paracel islands, and elsewhere.
Somewhere around the Cham Islands, where Staniforth’s team went diving, two Dutch ships, the Maria de Medicis and the Gulden Buijs were wrecked in a storm.
It was 26 November 1641 and they were on their way to Batavia (today’s Jakarta) from Formosa (now Taiwan). Their exact location is unknown, but some of the cargo may remain.
Staniforth thinks there could be thousands of shipwrecks lying off the Vietnamese coast.
And it is not just shipwrecks. There must be ancient ports and harbours dating back thousands of years, now submerged after centuries of rising sea levels. There could be layer upon layer of history in these waters.
In Hoi An, Staniforth and his colleagues hear talk of a village where fishermen go diving for ancient pots, but as permission to visit will take too long to filter through the tiers of Vietnamese bureaucracy, they make do instead with a trip to a museum in the provincial capital of Tam Ky, a little to the south of Hoi An.
When a museum official asks Staniforth for his scholarly opinion on a rock found underwater, and returns with a reddish brown object, there is new a surge of excitement.
Staniforth gives a low whistle. “Hello my friend. What do we have here?”
A “concretion”, apparently.
Centuries under the ocean have welded ship timber, iron bowl and ceramic into an unsightly mass - part of a wreck that had lain undiscovered in shallow water until now, Staniforth guesses.
Museum staff confirm that fishermen found it only 300m offshore in just over a metre of water – and it was from the very coastal village the archaeologists had hoped to visit.
It turns out the museum has a remarkable variety of ceramics from this one village, leading Staniforth to speculate about the possibility of more than one wreck at this site - probably small Asian boats.
Such wrecks are important. The survival of European records, and the absence of such documents from Asia, means understanding of international trade could be distorted.
The evidence of potentially vast flows of Asian trade - in the vessels of some of the world’s earliest global capitalists - may be lying there hidden just beneath the surface.
If the archaeologists can study the sunken ships and their cargo, they will have a chance of reconstructing the story of these early global capitalists.
But to do so, they will need to get there before the treasure-hunters.
It’s fishermen who are usually first to discover a wreck, and the booty presents a rare chance to supplement meagre incomes.
“First they think of money and go to the antique dealers,” explains an official at the Tam Ky museum.
When they think something is not of value, then they come to us.”
Quang Ngai, the province where the collector Giao found pottery washed up on the beach as a child, is said to be home to the best fishermen in Vietnam, and the best free-divers.
It is a remote place of poverty, rarely visited by tourists.
The beach at Binh Chau, where three wrecks have been found over the years, is crowded with fishermen hauling containers of fish, mending netting and ropes.
The streets are dusty, the shops bare. You can see immediately why fishermen would grab with both hands any antiques the ocean offered up, and would sell them - just as they sell their normal catch - to anyone ready to pay.
Giao says that not long ago fishermen would stumble upon wrecks and collect the cargo for three or four years before any officials would arrive to investigate.
Now, he says, the authorities move in quickly to retrieve the goods with the help of a local salvage company, and agree a way of sharing them.
Such operations are not overseen by an underwater archaeologist and the fear is that the site is damaged, the goods are dispersed, and the historical record is lost.
When the visiting archaeologists see photographs of fishermen in snorkel masks brandishing finds from the sea they cannot help wondering what happened to the ship, and the evidence it held about the society that made it.
Was it hacked apart as the treasure hunters rushed to get to the valuables within?
“There was insufficient awareness of people, authorities at all levels, professional agencies… in [the] significance and value of antiquities,” the Vietnamese government reported to Unesco in 2013, according to scholars Damien Huffer and Duncan Chappell.
The report went on: “Illicit excavation of archaeological sites has not been strictly prevented by the legal authorities.”
Almost 15 years on from the discovery of the Hoi An Hoard, its impact is still evident on the town’s dainty streets.
Spoils from the wreck can be found in almost every antique shop, and plenty of other shops catering for tourists too.
The clues are obvious - barnacles welded on to the rims of bowls, stains left by long-departed sea creatures.
In one shop Kimura and Staniforth find a fine China container with piercing blue paintwork, filled to the brim with desiccated marine life.
“That is Ming and it is from a wreck,” Staniforth concludes.
What’s more, it is from an undocumented wreck. Ceramics of this kind have not been excavated from any shipwreck known to have been found in these waters in recent years.
Another member of the team, American archaeologist Debra Shefi, points out that without professional conservation, these objects will deteriorate.
Lying buried in the seabed in an oxygen-free environment preserves them well.
Even moving them to fresh water is a process that needs to be handled slowly and carefully, let alone exposing them to air.
It’s not only shopkeepers who try to acquire antiques. The Hoi An Hoard turned many ordinary citizens into collectors, from those who keep and cherish just a few pieces, to others with spectacular stockpiles.
The town’s oldest and most famous collector, Diep Gia Tung, lives among his ceramics in a darkened house crammed with a dizzying array of treasures that he treats with loving respect.
“I am the keeper of memories,” he insists.
All these objects are mine. I do not want to sell them. I will only sell if there are identical artefacts.”
Any items that are sold, Shefi points out, will be lost to research.
But even Diep Gia Tung’s collection is overshadowed by that of his counterpart in Quang Ngai, a man known as Lam Du Xenh, who not long ago made a remarkable acquisition.
One day the beach belched up a wooden ship.
It happened during a powerful storm that kept the fishing boats in port and the fishermen and their families indoors.
Overnight the storm died down, and when people emerged the following morning, they found dark pock-marked timber sprawled across the sand, unusual glazed ceramic plates and bowls, and large clay pots.
The fishermen were set to turn the wood into tables and chairs until Lam Du Xenh arrived, and persuaded them to sell him their finds.
That was several years ago and the timber and many of the artefacts now rest in a large open shelter at his home in a nearby town.
Jun Kimura believes it could be one of the most important shipwreck finds in Vietnam, or even in the whole of south-east Asia.
It turned out to be a ship built in the 7th or 8th Century carrying rare Changsha wares.
Changsha kilns flowered for only 150 years or so during China’s Tang dynasty and their distinctive and bold designs would sit comfortably in any modern art museum. But few examples have been found outside Hunan, in China, where they were made.
The large vessel had sailed from the Middle East, via South Asia and up to China. It was probably on its way back when it met with disaster.
On board were pale clay pots with lettering in Chinese, Arabic, what looks like an Indian script too, as well as Stars of David.
It is crucial evidence of just how connected the world was, even that long ago.
A millennium and more passed before it was returned from its underwater burial site.
To find such a site would be “an archaeologist’s dream”, as one of the team puts it. But to bring order now to the material Lam Du Xenh took home from the beach will be a huge task.
None of the material was collected scientifically, it has not been preserved and stored appropriately, and there is no sense of how the goods were arranged on board.
As I stand next to the timbers of the ship, one dried-out piece falls to the floor. They survived 1,000 years under water, but on dry land they are already beginning to crumble. How much of them will be left in 10 years’ time is unclear.
Lam’s entire ramshackle collection - which he began only 15 years ago - is little short of astonishing.
He has material from 12 Vietnamese wrecks including tens of thousands of coins stored in plastic boxes, Song dynasty ceramics piled on shelves, tiny little urns, huge vases, dark brown earthenware jugs...
I walked past some goods stored close to a stove where fish was frying in his kitchen.
Mysteriously, some images of Changhsa pottery “from a wreck in central Vietnam” have appeared on the website of a Singapore antiques dealer.
These items are so rare that archaeologists believe they must have left Vietnam recently.
Lam says it’s nothing to do with him - collectors from Singapore came to view his wares, but he didn't sell them anything.
Many conservationists would refuse to study Lam’s collection on principle, because it is in private hands and at risk of being sold.
But some archaeologists have begun the work of categorising the goods from this boat, arguing that otherwise history will be lost.
Lam is not a scholar, he admits, but says he has done his best. He works closely with the provincial authorities and there is even talk of opening a museum.
And had he not intervened, he points out, the boat’s timbers would have been sawn to pieces.
Jun Kimura, now at the Field Museum in Chicago, began his work in Vietnam studying the site of a naval battle, where a Vietnamese commander defeated an invading fleet sent by Kublai Khan from China.
This work piqued the interest of the late Claude Duthuit, a keen diver and trustee of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (and a grandson, as it happens, of the painter Henri Matisse).
Duthuit was so fascinated by what Vietnam had to offer he promised to fund some research and training. He died before he could make the gift but his wife honoured the pledge in 2011.
Staniforth and the team has eked out a frugal existence on trips here since then to work with Vietnam's Institute for Archaeology.
Staniforth, Kimura and Shefi are helped by Australian Ian McCann, who sold half his business to fund a life working with archaeologists and helping publicise their work. Because many of these expeditions are run on a shoestring, he makes contributions from his own pocket.
“Some guys choose to go around in a Porsche. This is what gets me. This is my lifestyle now,” he says.
The money from Duthuit’s widow is almost at an end, however. Vietnam’s shipwrecks deserve systematic study and protection, but now even this small research operation seems likely to peter out.
The Vietnamese government cannot easily afford this work, and nor does it have, yet, the technical ability.
It was only last year that the country got its first Underwater Archaeology Unit - part of the national Institute of Archaeology - but without proper funding there is little it can do.
“Even though we took the first step, we cannot go further. We tried our best to set up a unit, even with nothing,” says the eminent Vietnamese scholar, Prof Ton Trung Tin, who was until recently head of the Institute of Archaeology.
The challenge is to convince the authorities to invest resources.”
And it was only this year that Vietnam got its first underwater archaeologist.
In June, Staniforth’s team funded the training of a young archaeologist, Hieu Buivan, nominated by the head of the new underwater unit, Dr Le Thien Li. When he got his diving licence, he made a little history.
If the Underwater Archaeology Unit is able to step up its activities - perhaps with international support - it will need to alter the prevailing excavation model, whereby provincial authorities and local salvage companies carry out the work without specialist input.
“The strong point [of the salvage companies] is that they have people who can dive and equipment,” Tin says.
“The drawback is that they have no archaeological knowledge and don’t pay attention to the historical knowledge of the site.”
We as researchers understand this heritage, and the importance of history. Sometimes the government looks at the economic aspect.”
Among professional archaeologists there is in fact no consensus on whether it is even acceptable to take on a project with commercial partners.
Australian archaeologist Michael Flecker, who has worked on three major excavations in Vietnamese waters, including Vung Tau, argues that pillaging is inevitable once a wreck has been discovered, so the best real-world outcome is for governments, commercial salvage companies and archaeologists to collaborate.
The archaeologists can then supervise the process, record the boat and its cargo, and share the knowledge gained.
“If you had items of commercial value, and a responsible excavator, the fact they can make a bit of money out of the project, means they can bring up all the non-commercial bits and you sit there and record the hull,” he says.
He argues there is not much point in keeping thousands of identical pieces once they have been recorded.
But Mark Staniforth and some in his team believe it is better to record and rebury a site. Future generations, the argument goes, may be able to learn more from it than we can today.
This poses a dilemma for a country like Vietnam, which struggles to satisfy its people’s basic needs.
There is no international body it can turn to fund underwater archaeology. Unesco, for example, while it has recognised the Cham Islands as a World Biosphere Reserve and Hoi An as a World Heritage Site, doesn’t award research grants.
Perhaps one way for the country to justify spending scarce resources on the study of wrecks, would be to see it as an investment in the tourism industry - because the story told by the sunken boats is one that tourists will surely pay to experience.
In Hoi An, already a heritage tourism destination, officials give a clear indication that they know the historical value of a wreck is immeasurably higher than what a dealer will pay for it today. The problem may be conveying this message to areas rich in shipwrecks where tourism has yet to take off at all.
Vietnam’s central coastline is by turns tropical and sandy, and almost always beautiful. It can have a haunting quality that makes it easy to imagine “the shipwreck heritage trail” - holidays combining shipwrecks, history, diving and an exotic landscape.
Maybe Vietnam will make this choice before it is too late.