Friday, February 17, 2006


Allan Dumbong

Based on my preliminary anthropological research, there are evidences that Sabah/North Borneo/or other names before have established trade relations with China. This is a good news to the people of Sabah, which has a significant number of Chinese, whose forefathers migrated from China to Sabah few hundred years ago. This is also a good news to the indigenous of Sabah, like the Kadazan Dusun, who may have had contacts with the Chinese traders long time ago. Our history is believed to be long, but our recording and documentation of historical events are very poor and, indeed very short. It is very difficult even to trace our history of more than 1,000 years ago.

Anyway, today I visited the Exhibition and Auction of Antiques organized by Nanhai Marine Acheology Sdn Bhd at Waterfront Kota Kinabalu (18-19/2/2006). There I met one Mr Johan Milton who was manning the exhibition and he enlightened me that indeed the Ship Wreckage at Tanjung simpang is the earliest record of China trade in Sabah. This is inetersting.

Then I relate this wreckage story to the Austronesian Theory and the Sunda Shelf (Sunda Land) Theory which make the cultural anthropology a lively topic of discussion here in Sabah. At this stage, I am only deeply interested to know more about this whole story. But then, in view of time and financial constraint, I don't think I'll be able to dig more in a short span of time.

But then again, the point is, Sabah and China have established trade relations long time ago. Up until now, Sabah and China still maintaining a high volume of trade, albeit the trade balance is more bias to China.
I'll write more on this subject in future. But for the time being, suffice for me to introduce you the website:, which carries the following article about ship wreckage, Sabah-China Trade Relations in the early days. Anybody interested to join me in exploring more research on the earlier trade and probably diplomatic relations between Sabah-China, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can even connect you to the relevant people in the Sabah State Museum and the Nanhai Marine Acheology Sdn Bhd. I also welcome if there is any university or organization that would like to conduct research on this, and to work with us or to sponsor our research work in this area.

Sung pottery from The Tanjung Simpang Shipwreck (AD. 960-1127)
Source:, 18/2/2006
A 1000 year-old wreck site providing Archeology and Art history with new information.The Tanjung Simpang shipwreck site, the oldest in Malaysian waters, was unusual in many ways. It was the only site the company discovered in shallow water and close to shore. The site was heavily looted by local fishermen. Despite this looting, a number of Sung dynasty ceramic wares and few hundred kilos of pottery shards were recovered together with bronze gongs. Some of these gongs were signed with Chinese characters, painted on the reverse.It has been known for a long time that the ancient Chinese potters made markings in the base of his pots to identify each individuals wares after its firing. These markings are referred to as "potters marks". Few of the Tg. Simpang ceramic wares had "potters marks" painted in the base of the pots. These characters are however masterly executed, and question its signing by a lesser educated potter.Luckily, the bronze gongs remaining on the site showed identical painted characters as those seen on the pottery. Such identical markings should start a new debate about whom and when the artefacts were signed and for what purpose. The main point of contention seems to be if the pots were 'signed' before or after it firing and if it should continually be refrred to as "poters marks".
One argument presented here, with the evidences from the Tanjung Simpang shipwreck, is that these markings were not "potters marks" but markings made by the Captain or an onboard merchants to identify their individual objects when reaching their destination.
INTRODUCTION:The Department of Sabah Museum provided Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd. with a search/inspection permit in March 2003. The main intent with applying for such permit was a desire to extend the chronology of shipwrecks already discovered, investigated or excavated by the company in West Malaysia. Another objective was to locate a Sung dynasty site that had provided antique shops in Sabah with illegally salvaged pottery.If a shipwreck of archaeological importance was discovered, then it was also desirable to use such a site to continue training Malaysian nationals who had received basic archaeology training during the company's excavation and mapping of the Desaru (+/- 1830) shipwreck.The terms of the permit allowed the company to investigate any historical site within a specified area and thereafter decide whether or not to commence full-scale archaeological excavation. This condition was inserted as the company would have a preference for excavating shipwrecks that were intact and of such nature that it would complement the knowledge earned from other sites already excavated. If this option were declined, then the site would be transferred to the Department of Sabah Museum for excavation and/or training.
Directed to an area off Tanjung Simpang-mangayau, the northwestern point of Sabah, by a local fisherman (who prefers to remain anonymous) the site was discovered on the 15th of April 2003. It was located 400 meters from the shore and in twelve meters of water.The surface of the site is sandy but close to the fringing reef edge. The only indication of a shipwreck was stacks of bronze gongs that could be discerned above the flat seabed. This sandy layer varied between two and three feet in depth and is likely to have accumulated after the ship sunk.This location is directly exposed to the northeast monsoon winds that generate large waves, which increases in height as they meet shallower water. After sinking, the ship appears to have landed on coral rocks. Pounding on these rocks by every wave, the ship is likely to have broken up almost immediately. This theory seems supported by the number of artefacts found scattered between the rocks. Assuming that the ship sailed directly from China, it may have been damaged on the reefs extending east and west from Pulao Kalampunian and then sunk before the shore at Tanjung Simpangmangayau.
The looting of the site was extensive and large volumes of ceramics had been removed. It is likely that original stacks of ceramics were loaded level with the existent height of the bronze gongs. Now, only broken pottery and shards could be seen in the bottom of the crates, blown between the stacks of gongs.When the initial inspection ended on the 16th of April due to the onset of spring tide, two intact storage jars was left partly buried as a marker for continued inspection after the spring tide. Returning on the 21st of April, these two jars were lying next to their original location, smashed to pieces.The same evening a marker buoy was left on the site for ease of continued work. Returning early the following morning, a smaller fishing boat (No.3932 with Mr. Abdul Rahman on board) were found anchored at the site and its crew preparing to dive. Leaving the site in the evening of the 22nd of April after back-filling the test holes, two similar fishing boats (with hose-diving gear onboard) were seen traveling towards the site.
THE SHIP:During the inspection, very little ships timber was noted. The few pieces found were broken in short length and dislocated. No direction of the ship could be confirmed from the direction of these pieces. Attempts to locate scars from perpendicular transverse bulkheads in one specific piece of hull timber were also not conclusive. A sample of wood was collected for identification purposes. This piece is most likely from a tempered climate timber, probably pine, fir or cedar, which suggest that the ship was built in China.
The disturbed location of artefacts, likely dislocated by looters and the ships damage by the reef, made it meaningless to record each artefacts precise location. Instead it was decided urgent and prudent to rescue as much as possible, preventing remaining objects from looting. It was obvious that such ceramic assemblage was valuable from an art historical view as it represented trade wares available at one precise time in history.For that reason, a number of test holes were made throughout the site. Without any orientation, only a few of these artefacts could be assigned a preliminary location reference. From this it appears that most ceramic artefacts were located on the site's western perimeter.Each type of ceramic was photographed and provided with a general description, such that every diver could register each piece recovered in a uniform manner. The attached General Description of Artefacts lists all these different types of ceramic and non-ceramic artefacts. A total of three hundred three ceramic artefacts were registered in this mannerAll 'ceramic artefacts' are those that maintain more than fifty percent of its original shape; all other ceramics were considered 'shards'. Approximately two hundred and fifty kilo of shards were collected as reference objects. Due to its disturbed location, shards, did not receive individual registration numbers.
The bronze gongs appear to be some of the earliest types imported into Southeast Asia. The diameter vary between 39 and 43 centimeters. The surface is slightly curved and without any center protrusion, commonly seen on later gongs. The sides are bent in almost ninety degrees to the surface allowing stacking. The weight of these gongs varied between three and four kilos. A total of sixty-one bronze gongs were recovered.Other non-ceramics included round and oval shaped copper ingots that appeared to have been casted in simple sand moulds. Three sizes were found: 10-13 cm, 14-17 cm and 18-20 cm in diameter. Weights varied with size: 0.5 kg, 0.75 kg and 1 kilogram. Seventy-six copper discs were recovered.
Based on the ceramic pieces alone it would appear that the ship was loaded with Chinese ceramics made during the Northern Sung dynasty, sometime between AD. 960 and 1127. Although some features and styles pieces appear earlier, other forms are often attributed to a later period. Before providing a tentative date for the site, more experts will be consulted. The combined result of such opinions will be published at a later date.

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