The history of global trade will be investigated by Flinders archaeologists, thanks to a major donation.
The history of global trade will be investigated by Flinders University archaeologists, thanks to the donation of a large ceramics collection up to 1,000 years old, supported by ARC funding and a private donation that will enable its detailed research.
Michael Abbott AO KC began collecting Asian and Southeast Asian art, including ceramics and textiles, during his international travels in the 1960s. Now comprising 2,300 pieces, it is the most extensive Indonesian ceramic collection of this type – believed to be worth $1.5 million.
“I was encouraged to build this collection by my friend Dick Richards, who was curator of Asian art at the Art Gallery of South Australia,” says Mr Abbott.
“These ceramics were made in China, Vietnam and Thailand, and traded with Indonesia for spices, resins and sandalwood, from the 10th to the 18th centuries.
“They are quite beautiful works that would have been used in people’s homes.”
His intention was to conduct his own research in his retirement to investigate the origins of these ceramics.
However, now aged 78, Mr Abbott hasn’t retired and work commitments continue. He has realised that research on the collection must be conducted by someone else, and has entrusted the extraordinary collection to Flinders University – for its researchers and collaborators to undertake this vast challenge.
Michael Abbott AO KC with Flinders University researcher Dr Martin Polkinghorne.
Along with Mr Abbott’s gift to the University, a significant donation from his good friend Alastair Hunter OAM will enable Flinders University’s Dr Martin Polkinghorne to research the works and uncover their historical and cultural stories.
Funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) will also support the research and help to reveal the stories behind the largest known collection of trade ceramic in the world.
The collection comprises two categories of ceramics – trade ceramics acquired from markets, and a large number of pieces recovered from shipwrecks in Indonesia, some with shells and crustaceans still attached.
Where the ceramics were sourced is of particular interest to Dr Polkinghorne, Senior Lecturer of Archaeology at Flinders University.
“Our first task will be reuniting the pieces with the ships they came from, and this will build a detailed narrative of the maritime silk trade route, which was the greatest trade route in the world at that time,” says Dr Polkinghorne.
“We will be working hand-in-hand with regional colleagues, including the Indonesian ministry that administers shipwrecks, comparing ceramics they have from the sea floor with our collection.
“The intention is to ensure the pieces are correctly provenanced and to reconnect the collection with the communities of their origins.”
The research also hopes to locate which kilns were used to fire the ceramics by using elemental analysis of samples taken from the objects, and, as most pieces would have been made by master craftsmen, identify individual artists.
“It’s important to recognise that we are leading the way in evaluating these types of ceramics and working to discover the context of their origins,” says Mr Abbott.
The vast project, which is expected to take up to five years, will involve several PhD students from Indonesia coming to Flinders to help with the research. Dr Polkinghorne plans to share discoveries from the project with Indonesia, to promote deeper cultural and research links between Flinders and its Southeast Asian partners.
Providing the financial support for the research, Mr Hunter says, “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to support this project, for academic purposes alongside building and strengthening Australia’s relationships with our Indonesian neighbours.”
“My late parents, Tom and Elizabeth Hunter, were passionate collectors of art and antiques, including Asian ceramics and objects. They would consider this gift a wonderful investment in education and sharing international research.
“It is to the University’s great credit that this extensive collection will be preserved, curated and displayed by Flinders for public benefit.”
By employing and enhancing international conventions that relate to these collections, Dr Polkinghorne and his team hope to preserve the underwater cultural heritage of our region for future generations.
If you would like to support ground-breaking research at Flinders University, donate online today.
Tax exemption number for charitable donations: 65 542 596 200.
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