Secrets under the sea

The waters off the coast of central Vietnam are home to a host of shipwrecks and ancient artifacts.

By Jessica Nguyen on May 13,2019 03:03 PM

Secrets under the sea

Photos: THUY DUONG, BUI HUONG

Every year, around Vietnamese National Day on September 2, visitors to Da Nang can admire centuries-old artifacts on display at the “Old Market Fair” held in Danang’s center. A range of stalls called “Sa Huynh Cultural Collection”, “Collection of Chu Dau Ceramics”, “Ceramics of the Nguyen Dynasty”, and “Collection of Bonus Coins and Coins from Ancient Dynasties”, among others, attract hundreds of visitors during the six-day fair. Many of the antiquities on display were found at the bottom of the clear blue seas surrounding a famous local tourism site - Cu Lao Cham (Cham Island) off the coast of Hoi An ancient town.

Wealth of antiquities

From 1997 to 2000, for the first time, Vietnam conducted an official national-scale archaeological excavation of an ancient vessel sunk near Cu Lao Cham in cooperation with the Visal Co. from Vietnam and Saga Horizon from Malaysia. More than 240,000 antiques were found, most of which were Chu Dau ceramics, considered valuable national treasures.

After two years of work, the artifacts were auctioned. At the Butterfield Company auction in the US in October 2000, many of the antiques went for thousands of dollars and the total brought in was over $3 million.

Almost 20 years later, the area is still a “mine of antiques”, with rumors swirling around that there are many other sunken ships under the deep blue sea. Hundreds or probably even thousands of rare antiques have been salvaged already, both legally and illegally, selling on the international antique market from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Many local fishermen even decided to change jobs: from fishing to diving for antiques.

Archaeologists believe nearly every inch of both land and sea in the central region not only has artifacts but also cultural values from ancient cultures.

Central Vietnam, with its many seaports and estuaries, like Hoi An and Vuc Hong, were busy trading gateways in the 16th and 17th centuries. At almost every excavation site along the coast, archaeologists have found pottery from either the Chu Dau, Chinese, Sa Huynh, or Cham cultures. The range of artifacts found nearly two decades ago around Cu Lao Cham prove that central Vietnam was indeed a busy trading place in times long gone.

According to local historians, due to the country’s geographical shape, tide flows in the East Sea usually converge in the central region, especially in Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces. This may help to explain why many Western trading ships have been found under the waters.

Indeed, ancient Lord Nguyen Hoang used to order his soldiers from Quang Nam and Quang Ngai to go on expeditions to the Hoang Sa archipelago in the East Sea, to both collect items from shipwrecks and assert his sovereignty.

Millions of pottery shards along with more than 100 kilns were found two meters underground over an area of 70 sq m in Thai Tan and Minh Tan communes in Nam Sach district.

Chu Dau ceramics: Illustrious past

In mid-2003, a shipment of pottery from Nam Sach district in northern Hai Duong province bearing the “Chu Dau” trademark was exported to Spain.

More than three centuries earlier, another shipment of pottery was sent from this very location to the very same destination. That load never reached Spain, instead ending up at the bottom of the sea. Evidence was found that it was among the last shipments of Chu Dau pottery to be exported, and marked the end of the famous trademark.

The origin of the ancient ceramics was discovered purely by chance. In 1980, Mr. Makoto Anabuki, a former secretary at the Japanese Embassy, accidentally came across a 54-cm vase on display at the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, while on business. On the vase was a line of Chinese text that read “The eighth year of Thai Hoa Dynasty (1450). Written by artisan Bui Thi Hy from Nam Sach”. Mr. Anabuki wrote to authorities in Hai Duong, asking them to determine exactly which village the vase had come from.

This precious piece of information encouraged local officials to search for traces of an old pottery village. In April 1986, archaeologists from the Hai Duong Department of Culture and Information began excavations. To their surprise, they found many traces of a hitherto unknown center of high-quality pottery.

Millions of pottery shards along with more than 100 kilns were found two meters underground over an area of 70 sq m in Thai Tan and Minh Tan communes in Nam Sach district. The findings enabled local people to discover the glory days of their ancestors.

As for artisan Bui Thi Hy, following the genealogy of the Bui family, it is known that Mrs. Hy (1420-1499) was the wife of two rich ceramics entrepreneurs from Chu Dau ceramic village. Together with her second husband, she travelled many times by ship, taking Chu Dau pottery with her to sell in the West. On Mrs. Hy’s tombstone, words in Chinese clearly state that: Chu Dau pottery has three tasks: “giving to the royal court, exporting to Japan and China, and shipping to the West”. This proves that Chu Dau pottery were once as famous as Chinese ceramics.

Secrets under the sea

In 1993 and 1997, Chu Dau pottery was again found in two wrecks off the southeast Philippines and Cu Lao Cham. Of the 340,000 objects salvaged, 240,000 were intact. As well as Istanbul, Chu Dau pottery has since been found in 40 other museums around the world.

The method of producing Chu Dau pottery had reached a high level of expertise. Ceramic pots with elegant shapes were inherited from both Ly and Tran Dynasty pottery. Different from the cheaper and popular Bat Trang pottery, with white glaze and dark blue patterns bearing images of flowers or phoenixes and showcasing the mixing of Vietnamese and Chinese cultures, Chu Dau is the “royal scholar” pottery line, with white glaze the light blue patterns bearing sophisticated hand-painted drawings of truly Vietnamese themes showcasing Buddhism and Confucianism influences.

The most remarkable product of Chu Dau pottery is a pair of jars called Hoa Lam and Ty Ba, with the former being considered the “father” jar - with a strong shape expressing masculinity, while the latter represents the “mother” - with a soft shape expressing the curve of a woman’s body.

So, what triggered the sudden disappearance of a village that once produced pottery the experts of the day described as being “as thin as paper, as shiny as jade, as white as ivory, and as sound as bells”? Historians believe it was the constant civil wars of the 16th century that devastated the Nam Sach area.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Nam Sach witnessed a brutal civil war between the Le and Mac Dynasties. Not only farmers but also craftsmen were subjected to heavy taxes to fund the war, which lasted for 60 years and ended with the Mac’s defeat. Later, under the Le Dynasty, any inscriptions from the Mac Dynasty were destroyed. The Chu Dau pottery line, which developed under the Mac Dynasty, was all demolished. The villagers of Chu Dau fled, and that put an end to their superb pottery.

It was not until early 2000 that Mr. Nguyen Huu Thang, a native of Nam Sach, returned to his home village to start a project to bring the famed trademark back to life. A factory was built, producing pottery bearing the Chu Dau trademark, and its very first shipment went to Spain.

Most recently, items of Chu Dau pottery depicting “Dong Son bronze drums”, with sharp gold-plated patterns, were presented by the Chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, Mr. Nguyen Duc Chung, to international media attending the DPRK-US Summit in March. Chu Dau pottery undoubtedly lives on.

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