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10thC Indonesian Ships Superior

Five hundred years before groups of ocean conquistadors from Portugal began their journey to look for new territories, ships from the islands now known as Indonesia were traveling around Asian waters with very advanced technology.

The preliminary scientific reconstruction of a shipwreck recovered from the Java Sea found that the ship had better technology than those from Europe, China or Japan. The ship, believed to have sunk between 930 AD and 990 AD in a storm, was also bigger and better constructed.

“Our preliminary analysis concludes that the ship was 25 to 35 meters long and 12 meters wide. At that period, China still had no ships that could sail the oceans, while European ships were much smaller. Imagine, the ship Columbus used to sail to America and 15th century European ships were all less than 20 meters,” German ship expert Horts H. Liebner said.

Liebner, one of probably only three or four world-class experts in traditional and sunken ships, said that looking at the technology and construction, the recovered ship was definitely an Indonesian ship possibly from Sumatra, Kalimantan or Sulawesi.

He said the discovery of wood nails as binders of planks for the ship, as well as of boxes for ivory binders (tambugu) used to strengthen the ship suggested that it used technology from West Austronesia, referring to an area of what is now the Indonesian archipelago.

“Indian and Arabic ships used ropes to connect planks while the Chinese used iron nails. So, it can’t be an Indian, Arabic or Chinese ship,” Liebner said.

Other proof that supports the scientific claim that the ship belonged to the West Austronesian ship making tradition is the use of longitudinal and traverse strengthening, which experts have long believed to be characteristic of Indonesian ships.

The application of standardized hole size — 27 millimeters each — for the wood nails shows a method of ship making that employed the most advanced technology of its time.

Hence, Liebner said, the discovery was very important because it could confirm many assumptions by experts, who have speculated for many years that Indonesians, especially Makassar and Bugis traders and fishermen, reached many areas of the world before Europeans arrived there.

“I believed such ships with this size and technology were commonplace in the archipelago. It proves that Indonesian ancestors were far in front of others in maritime affairs at that time,” he said.

He said at that time the Europeans, Chinese and Japanese did not possess the technology to make ships capable of sailing away from the shore, let alone crossing the ocean, such as the Indian Ocean or the Pacific Ocean.

Liebner said the technology of the ship suggested that many traders from what people now know as Indonesia crossed both oceans in order to reach Africa, Arabia and islands in the Pacific.

“We can make all of the conclusions from analysis of several samples taken from the shipwreck. Who knows how many other things can be revealed if we continue our examination of the samples. Unfortunately, the police confiscated them all,” he said.

Police confiscated last January over 490,000 pieces of ancient ceramics, gold coins and glassware salvaged from the shipwreck, as well as samples used for laboratory analysis. Police alleged that the materials were salvaged illegally.

Liebner said with all of the samples stored in containers and kept under the scorching sun for months, further analysis would be difficult.

Abdul Khalik

Note: Abdul Khalik, has won the “Best Journalist” category in the Foreign Ministry’s Adam Malik Award for covering world news during 2006.