800-year-old ‘Made in China’ label found at the bottom of the sea provides new clues about the lost history of an Indonesian shipwreck

  • A shipwreck in the Java sea around Indonesia was discovered in the 1980s
  • The hull had disintegrated but its cargo and other contents remained in tact
  • Amongst the treasure was ceramic pottery from China, ivory tusks and resin
  • Analysis from the various clues revealed the shipwreck could be 856 years old
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An 800-year-old ‘Made in China’ label has revealed new clues about the lost history of a shipwreck and its cargo.

The mysterious ship sank in the Java Sea, off the coast of Indonesia, hundreds of years ago – but little is known about the vessel or its journey. 

Its wooden hull had disintegrated over time, leaving only a treasure trove of cargo.

The ship was carrying ceramics marked with an inscription that indicates they were made in Jianning Fu, a government district in China.

Researchers have now used the label to date the shipwreck to a hundred years earlier than previously thought.

They now believe the ship may have sunk late in 1200s and as early as 1162, although the circumstances still remain a mystery.  

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An 800-year-old ‘Made in China’ label (pictured) has revealed the lost history of a shipwreck and its cargo. This Chinese inscription mentions a location, Jianning Fu, that dates from AD 1162 to 1278

The ship had been carrying thousands of ceramics and luxury goods for trade, and they remained on the ocean floor until the 1980s when the wreck was discovered by fishermen.

In the years since, archaeologists have been studying artifacts retrieved from the shipwreck to piece together where the ship was from and when it departed. 

In a new study researchers describe the equivalent of a ‘Made in China’ label on a piece of pottery which has helped explain what happened to the ill-fated vessel.  

Study lead author Doctor Lisa Niziolek, an archaeologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, said: ‘Initial investigations in the 1990s dated the shipwreck to the mid- to late 13th Century, but we’ve found evidence that it’s probably a century older than that.

‘Eight hundred years ago, someone put a label on these ceramics that essentially says “Made in China” – because of the particular place mentioned, we’re able to date this shipwreck better.’

The ship was carrying ceramics marked with an inscription that might indicate they were made in Jianning Fu, a government district in China.

But after the invasion of the Mongols around 1278, the area was reclassified as Jianning Lu.

The slight change in name tipped Dr Niziolek and her colleagues off that the shipwreck may have occurred earlier than the late 1200s, and potentially as early as 1162.

Dr Niziolek claims that after the Mongol colonisation, it is unlikely the ship was carrying old pottery with the outdated name.


Pictured are Chinese ceramic bowls in situ at the Java Sea Shipwreck site. As well as the pottery found at the wreck site, the ship was also carrying elephant tusks and sweet-smelling resin. These were carbon dated to find out when the ship sunk 

She said: ‘There were probably about a hundred thousand pieces of ceramics on-board.

‘It seems unlikely a merchant would have paid to store those for long prior to shipment – they were probably made not long before the ship sank.’

The ship was also carrying elephant tusks for use in medicine or art and sweet-smelling resin for use in incense or for caulking ships.

Dr Niziolek said both the tusks and the resin were critical to re-dating the wreck.

Because both the resins and the tusks come from living things, the treasures could be radiocarbon dated.

This technique make use of the carbon present in all living things. 


Researchers have discovered that the mystery ship had been carrying thousands of ceramics (pictured) and luxury goods for trade, and they remained on the ocean floor until the 1980s when the wreck was discovered by fishermen


The mysterious ship sank in the Java Sea, off the coast of Indonesia , hundreds of years ago – but little is known about the vessel or its journey

A type of carbon atom called C-14 is unstable and decays relatively steadily over time.

Scientists can use the amount of C-14 in a sample to determine how old it is.

The analysis, known as radiocarbon dating, had originally been done decades ago and pointed to the shipwreck being about 700 to 750 years old.  

But Dr Niziolek said analytical techniques have improved since then, and the scientists wanted to see if the date held.


The ship’s wooden hull had disintegrated over time, leaving only a treasure trove of cargo lying on the sea bed that was then collected and studied 


A team of archaeologists and divers gathered all the items that were found at the site of the shipwreck and brought it to the surface. This was done in the 1980s and the findings have been studied several times since 

The amount of decayed carbon found in the resins and tusks revealed that the cargo was older than previously thought. 

Researchers brought all these clues together and concluded that the shipwreck was indeed older than previously thought -somewhere in the region of 800 years old.

Dr Niziolek said: ‘When we got the results back and learned that the resin and tusk samples were older than previously thought, we were excited.

‘We had suspected that based on inscriptions on the ceramics and conversations with colleagues in China and Japan, and it was great to have all these different types of data coming together to support it.’

She said the fact that the shipwreck happened 800 years ago instead of 700 years ago is a big deal for archaeologists.

WHAT IS CARBON DATING AND HOW IS IT USED?  

Carbon dating, also referred to as radiocarbon dating or carbon-14 dating, is a method that is used to determine the age of an object. 

It can only be used on objects containing organic material – that was once ‘alive’ and therefore contained carbon.    

The element carbon apears in nature in a few slightly different varieties, depending on the amount of neutrons in its nucleus. 

Called isotopes, these different types of carbon all behave differently.  

Most of the stable, naturally occurring carbon on Earth is carbon 12 – it accounts for 99 per cent of the element on our planet. 

Another carbon isotope is Carbon-14, a radioactive version of carbon.

It occurs naturally in the atmosphere as part of carbon dioxide, and animals absorb it when they breathe. 

Animals stop taking it in when they die, and a finite amount of the chemical is stored in the body. 

Radioactive substances all have a half-life, the length of time it takes for a material to lose half of its radioactivity. 

Carbon-14 has a long half-life, 5,370 years to be exact. 

This long half-life can be used to find out how old objects are by measuring how much radioactivity is left in a specimen.

Due to the long half-life, archaeologists have been able to date items up to 50,000 years old.  

Radiocarbon dating was first invented in the 1940s by an American physical chemist called Willard Libby. He won the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery.


By studying the artefacts and their inscriptions as well as carbon dating the organic materials, the scientists found that the the shipwreck occurred 800 years ago instead of 700 years ago


Archaeologists believe the shipwreck occurred at a time of important transition. Original analysis had been done decades ago and pointed to the shipwreck being about 700 to 750 years old. Improvements to the technique make this latest finding more accurate

‘This was a time when Chinese merchants became more active in maritime trade, more reliant upon oversea routes than on the overland Silk Road,’ Dr Niziolek continued.

‘The shipwreck occurred at a time of important transition.’

She added: ‘The salvage company Pacific Sea Resources recovered these artefacts in the 1990s, and they donated them to the Field Museum for education and research.

‘There’s often a stigma around doing research with artefacts salvaged by commercial companies, but we’ve given this collection a home and have been able to do all this research with it.

‘It’s really great that we’re able to use new technology to re-examine really old materials. These collections have a lot of stories to tell and should not be entirely discounted.’ 

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