L is for Longquan

by Karen Loh

Image credit: Dennis Ong

The Longquan Shipwreck c1400

Celadon bottle vase from Sisatchanalai with elaborate lotus blossoms incised around the body, recovered from the Longquan Shipwreck. Image credit: Sten Sjostrand

Not to be confused with the kilns in Longquan, China, some of the celadon pieces exhibited here at the Shipwreck vitrine in Gallery B were recovered from the Longquan Shipwreck. It was naval architect, historical shipwreck explorer, and salvor, Sten Sjostrand, who discovered this shipwreck in 1996, about 23 nautical miles off the coast of Terengganu. He had just begun searching a new line along the seabed when the wreck first appeared as a big, black image on his side scan sonar printer. Following that, the next step was to send divers down to investigate this black image. In Sjostrand’s own words, “The first dive revealed an enormous ceramic mound rising 1.80 metres above the seabed. It was thirty metres long and eight metres wide. We had never seen, or even heard about so much pottery being found in one place before. The volume of the mound suggested more than 100,000 antique pieces.”

Location of the Longquan Shipwreck site (23 nautical miles off the coast of Terengganu). Image credit: Kayla Lee

A surface sample of the ceramics was collected, which revealed that it was most probably a merchant ship carrying a large assortment of pottery consisting of Chinese celadon from the Longquan kilns, white-glazed bowls from southern China, Sisatchanalai celadon, fish and flower black underglaze plates fromSukhotai and Thai Suphanburi storage jars. In terms of cargo ratio, it was estimated to be 40% Chinese, 40% celadon from Sisatchanalai and 20% underglaze ware from Sukhotai. Due to the presence of Chinese Longquan celadon ceramics in the sample survey, it was decided that the site would be named Longquan, in honour of the Longquan kilns in China. As the Chinese celadon on board were dated to early Ming and judging from the style of the Sukhotai pieces, it was concluded that the ship dated to c1400 CE.

Photos taken during the initial surface investigation on the Longquan Shipwreck site. Image credit: Sten Sjostrand (from the book Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks, 2006)

The Longquan shipwreck lies at a depth of 63 metres (equivalent to the height of an 18-storey building), which is very dangerous dive, even for professional divers. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors, popularly known as PADI, does not recommend diving beyond 40 metres for advanced recreational divers. Understandably, there are many dangers of deep diving, which include decompression sickness (DCS or better known as the bends, which all divers fear), nitrogen narcosis (which has an intoxicating effect), and running out of air (which can be fatal) either caused by faulty equipment or encountering underwater obstacles. As for the ship, it was of a South China Sea design, built from tropical hardwood, complete with transverse compartments separated by bulkheads and joined by the use of wooden dowels. The wreck was relatively intact, and according to Sjostrand, had a “few side boards, which had never been seen before”.

The Longquan was carrying more than 100,000 pieces of pottery, which was considered a very large amount those days. For comparison, this ship was carrying at least 15 times more pottery than the Turiang Shipwreck. Sjostrand discovered the Turiang shipwreck, which dates to c1370, in 1998. Unlike the Longquan, the Turiang was a Chinese-built vessel. The pottery mix carried was also slightly different. She was carrying celadon, green-glazed, and brown-glazed ware from China, Thai pottery from Sukhotai (especially fish plates) and Sisatchanalai, but unlike the Longquan, also had black underglaze Vietnamese ware on-board. Furthermore, unlike the Longquan wreck, the Turiang has been fully excavated.

Sisatchanalai celadon cup from the Longquan Shipwreck; side and bottom view. Image credit: Karen Loh

After the initial survey, the shipwreck site was left alone. Plans were being made to excavate the shipwreck properly with safety of the divers in mind. In Sjostrand’s own words again, “I had been looking forward to unravelling the secrets of this mighty ship and had spent a lot of time devising a way to fully excavate her in shallower water as there are few divers who could work safely at the depth, she was lying in. The plan was to build an ‘A’ frame with some jackets underneath, then to pull steel sheets under the wreck and tie wires to the lifting frame – like a cradle. Then the cradle containing the whole ship would be lifted and placed in a specially prepared trench in three metres of water off Pulau Tioman.” The frame, once lifted could have been a working platform for a maritime team and maybe a tourist observation deck as well, built around the wreck frame.

Unfortunately, these plans were not to be. In April 2001, Sjostrand went to check on the Longquan wreck site and, to his horror, found that the mound of pottery had been levelled, smashed, and broken. He estimated that only 10,000 out of the 100,000 pieces were left! So, what happened to this shipwreck site? Sjostrand soon found the answer. Fishing trawlers had been seen at the site, trawling the seabed with their nets with little regard for the pottery they picked up, damaged or moved. The mound of pottery would no doubt have been trawled on and flattened by their nets. That was more than twenty years ago. It is doubtful that the cargo is still there, which makes the few pieces we have on display in this gallery a limited edition.

Longquan shipwreck recovered pieces on display at Gallery B: 1. Longquan Celadon dish 2. Longquan Celadon bottle 3. Sisatchanalai celadon cup. Image credit: Karen Loh

Why is Longquan Celadon famous?

Celadon or greenware from Longquan was much sought after and exported in large quantities to many countries during the Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE). The celadon pottery made here was famous for its greenish or grayish blue glaze, which has a jade-like resemblance, and the surface was ‘as smooth and lustrous as jade’. Though the clay body was heavy and thick initially, it was perfected by the late Song period. By then, the kilns had succeeded in producing thinner bodies, maintaining its transparency and even incorporated glaze. Other similar tones such as pale green, bean green and plum green were equally popular. During the Song Dynasty, celadon pottery such as dishes, plates, vases, jars, and bowls with this jade-like glaze were very much in demand. Carved lotus, lotus petals, or stylized floral motifs on bowls, and fish and dragon motifs on dishes and plates were favoured and were the prevalent design choices at that time. So favoured were these pieces then, that even Japan and Korea emulated the style and shapes of pottery from Longquan.

Celadon production in Longquan County began during the fifth to sixth century with its production increasing rapidly and flourishing during the Northern Song period before reaching its prime during the Southern Song dynasty. Longquan County is situated in the Lishui prefecture, along the Lishui River in southwestern Zhejiang, in the south of China. The best-known Longquan celadons have been produced here at the Dayao and Jincun kilns. Longquan kilns have been recorded to have the longest history of celadon production in China with 400-500 kilns discovered by archaeologists since the 1950s. The emergence of Jingdezhen’s blue and white porcelain during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE) saw declined demand for celadon pottery and hence its production.

left: Sukhotai underglaze black decorated fish plate; right: Suphanburi storage jar with stamped decoration on the shoulder; both recovered from the Longquan shipwreck. Image credit: Sten Sjostrand


Brown, Roxanna & Sjostrand, Sten. (2004). Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia. RECCEX.

Davis, Aran. Dangers of Commercial Diving and How to Stay Safe. Divers Institute of Technology http://www.diversinstitute.edu

Koh antique blog site, Late Southern Song/early Yuan (2nd quarter to end of 13th Century) Longquan wares. http://www.koh-antique.com/celadon/longquana.html

Sjostrand, Sten & Adi Haji Taha, & Samsol Sahar. (2006). Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks. Pujangga Design & Communications, pp. 82-87.

Xu Naiqing, Wang Youbu & Wu Ying (editors). (2006). The Art of Chinese Ceramics. Long River Press, pp. 130-147.Becoming a Certified Scuba Diver faqs https://www.padi.com/help/scuba-certification-faq

In this Series

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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