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Ancient Trade Routes

The tumulus of the Lena junk lay at a depth of 48 metres.
Rows of blue and white porcelain bowls from the cargo of the Lena junk.
Sea life amidst the cargo of the sunken Lena junk.
An archaeologist is taking inventory of small jars from Vietnam. Once cleaned they will reveal a flower design. These jars were very popular in Asian sea trade.
Rows of blue and white porcelain bowls and plates from the Lena junk.

Lena Shoal

The Story

The junk ‘Lena’ sank around 1490 during the Ming-Dynasty in the reign of the Emperor Hongzhi. Chinese seafarers dominated the seas of the eastern hemisphere in the 15th century. These enterprising merchants not only supplied all of south east asia with their goods, but also had strong trading connections as far as the middle east and Africa. In 1405, emperor Yongle launched the first of seven great maritime expeditions of the famous Treasure Fleet.

The destination of the junk ‘Lena’ remains an enigma. It can be assumed that after loading up with ceramics (some of which originated from the kilns at Jingdezhen, Longquan and Guangdong) as well as various other merchandise such as bronze gongs and bracelets, frying-pans and iron ingots, the junk set sail from the port of Zhejiang or Fujian.

The junk then made for southern China where it took on board jars of various types and then further on for a port in Siam where the holds were loaded with an additional quantity of ceramics from various kilns. The ‘Lena’ might also have touched the coast of the Malay peninsula and Sumatra where perhaps the tin ingots and copper utensils were loaded. The presence of Siamese goods on the shipwreck suggests that the junk followed the coastal route along the Chinese borders in order to get to Malacca where the cargo would then be exported towards the Middle-East. It is thus surprising to find this wreck lying to the north-east of Palawan, nearly 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) from a Siamese port or the Malacca Straits.

Video

Piles of porcelain bowls were found in their original position on the Lena Shoal wreck site. They had been packed in tubular fashion, stacked one upon the other in similar shapes, regardless of surface design.

The Discovery

Perhaps, the cargo was destined for the Moslem sultanates of the Philippine islands, the large island of Borneo or the Moluccas? In view of the presence on board of merchandise, it is possible that unforeseen circumstances, probably linked to the weather, must have pushed the junk far from any logical route. 

Franck Goddio, in cooperation with the National Museum of the Philippines, discovered the ‘Lena’ in 1997, at a depth of 48 metres. She was wrecked on a reef and sank off the island of Busuanga, in the Philippines, one of about 7,000 islands, reefs and sandbanks in the area. The reef lies only 7 metres underwater at the point at which it is closest to the surface. Given the size of the junk the draught would have been not more than two and a half metres, three at most. This would suggest that the junk might have grazed the reef during a storm, which would have produced some deep troughs in the waves.

Further information can be obtained from the website of IEASM (Insitut Européen d'Archéologie Sous-Marine).

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Pictures

Porcelain dishes in blue and white appear after the sediment has been removed from the wreck of the Lena junk.
Piles of blue and white porcelain bowls and plates from the Lena Junk.
Archaeological divers carefully excavate the Lena junk in 48 metres depth.
Among the cargo of the Lena junk were piles of porcelain bowls, jars and small porcelain bottles with globular bodies. The bottles have a lid pierced with holes. They were most certainly used as water bottles, with the filter acting as protection against dust and insects.
The remnants of the Lena wreck are cleared from sediment with the help of a water dredge.