‘X-Ray Gun’ Helps Pinpoint Origin of Pottery From Ancient Shipwreck

Ceramic bowls at the site of a shipwreck 800 years ago in the Java Sea. (Field Museum)

(CN) – Archaeologists used an “X-ray gun” to determine the origin of ancient Chinese porcelain found in an 800-year-old shipwreck, right down to the site of the kiln where the pottery was fired.

In the 1980s, fishermen found a shipwreck the seabed of the Java Sea, between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. It was recovered in the 1990s, and researchers have been studying it ever since.

Chicago’s Field Museum holds around 7,500 pieces of cargo found in the wreck, including a number of ceramic bowls and boxes.

The ship, which was likely sailing from southeastern China to Java, was carrying around 100,000 ceramic containers, 200 tons of iron, and materials like ivory and resin.

In a new study published Friday, researchers said they were able to determine the origin of the cargo by analyzing the chemical composition of the ceramics and comparing them to samples from different Chinese kiln sites.

“Each kiln site uses its own materials and ingredients for clay – that’s what makes each sample’s fingerprint unique,” said Wengpeng Xu, the lead author of the study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“If the fingerprint of the sample matches the fingerprint of the kiln site, then it’s highly possible that that’s where the sample came from.”

The porcelain from the shipwreck has a specific blue-white glaze called qingbai, which signifies that it came from southeastern China. And researchers were able to confirm it by using a piece of equipment called a portable X-ray fluorescence detector.

Ceramics from the Field Museum’s Java Sea shipwreck collection being analyzed by portable X-ray fluorescence. (Field Museum/Kate Golembiewski)

“It looks a lot like a ray gun,” said co-author Lisa Niziolek. “You’re shooting X-rays into a material you’re interested in. It excites the material’s atoms. Energy goes flying out, and this measures that energy. Different elements have different signatures of energy that comes back out.”

With the knowledge of where the ceramics found in the shipwreck were made, researchers have an enhanced understanding of trade routes of the time.

“It’s amazing that we can pinpoint the production area of materials from an 800-year-old shipwreck,” Xu said, adding the knowledge of ancient trade relations “is very important for us to understand the present.”

The ceramics were made about 2,000 miles from the site of the wreck, and the new findings add to an emerging understanding of Asian trade routes in the 12th and 13th centuries.

“The ancient world was more interconnected than a lot of people thought,” said Gary Feinman, co-author of the study and anthropology curator at the Field Museum. “We’re taught to associate vast trade networks with Europeans like Magellan and Marco Polo, but Europeans weren’t a big part of this network that went from Asia to Africa. Globalization isn’t just a recent phenomenon – it’s not just Eurocentric, not just tied to modern capitalism.”

%d bloggers like this: