“They were quite beautiful artisanal works that would have been used in people’s homes – very different to rare imperial porcelain,” explains Associate Professor Polkinghorne. “They tell us a lost story about how ordinary people lived in those times.”
The collection, which Mr Abbott amassed from the late 1960s to 2010 and is believed to be worth about $1.5 million, comprises items acquired from markets and dealers across Indonesia, some with shells and encrustaceans still attached, indicative of their shipwreck origins. However, the story of their trade journey is incomplete because the objects were salvaged without their location being accurately recorded.
It’s an intensive search for the Flinders team to find answers, with more than 700 recorded shipwrecks between the 9th and 20th centuries in Indonesia’s territorial waters (and many believe there could be thousands more), although the exact locations of only 170 wrecks have been surveyed, and only a handful have been studied with precise archaeological detail.
By reconnecting items from this collection to specific shipwrecks, the Reuniting Orphaned Cargoes project could unlock a new method for investigating other collections of orphan objects.
“This is a gateway project for archaeology,” says Associate Professor Polkinghorne. “We are working with the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, and they have a further 280,000 salvaged objects in storage, which remain unstudied. We will be working with them to establish new archaeological protocols and supply the interpretive tools that best protect them for the future. Our findings will address unprovenanced underwater cultural heritage, and open paths to implement and refine the operational guidelines of international heritage conventions that govern this area.”
The archaeological investigation team working at Flinders – which includes two Indonesian PhD students, acknowledged as that country’s best maritime archaeologists – will achieve their goals via several stages of investigation.
“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 Associate Professor Polkinghorne. “We will be working with the Indonesian ministry that monitors shipwrecks and be comparing ceramics they have from the sea floor with our collection.”
The researchers will use machine learning to examine the decorations on ceramics and compare them to form relationships between matched items across the different collections. They will then use methods of archaeological science that will reveal the elemental fingerprints of each object, to identify their composition and help trace their origin – right back to specific kilns they were fired in.
“We can compare glazes, clays, firing techniques – each of which were distinctive to specific locations. Actually, identifying where the objects were made is not so difficult, because ceramic art history is very well catalogued. The hard part is tracking them from the kiln to the shipwreck. It’s going to be much harder for us to identify exactly what shipwreck on the sea floor they came from.”
Incredibly, the encrustaceans attached to some objects that were salvaged from the sea floor will help the archaeologists to unravel this mystery, as they provide extra biological data to help pinpoint their salvage location.