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The Martaban Jars From The San Diego Shipwreck | National Museum of the Philippines

The San Diego was a 300-ton, forty-meter long merchant ship reportedly built in the shipyards of Cebu. The vessel was docked in Cavite for reconditioning and repairs while waiting for the right season to depart for Acapulco when news of a Dutch naval intrusion in the Philippines reached Manila. In the absence of warships, the Spanish government hastily assembled a small fleet of non-military vessels with the San Diego as the flagship to pursue and engage Spain’s sworn enemy. Led by Antonio de Morga, the Spanish fleet engaged three Dutch vessels off Fortune Island in Batangas on 14 December 1600. The ensuing naval battle caused San Diego to sink while fighting with the Dutch vessel Mauritius. 

Archaeological excavations in 1991 and 1992 by the National Museum of the Philippines and Franck Goddio’s World Wide First (WWF) unearthed more than 34,000 archaeological objects that revealed a snapshot of a specific time period during colonial Philippines’ maritime history. Some of the objects recovered from the shipwreck are featured in the San Diego shipwreck exhibition at the National Museum of Anthropology, which remains closed at this time due to the pandemic.

Among the shipwreck inventory are large stoneware jars called Martaban jars. The term Martaban jars has been previously known to connote large Asian storage jars. This notion has been rectified as ceramic scholars ascertained that Martaban jars is a specific name designating exclusively a class of ceramic jars produced in Lower Myanmar (formerly Burma). 

Martaban is a city port in the Gulf of Martaban region that was the capital of the Mon Kingdom from the late thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth century CE. The capital later moved to Pegu but Martaban remained an active trading port until the middle of the sixteenth century CE. During its heyday, historical sources mentioned the port was a famous commercial center from which a large number of merchandise, including large, stoneware jars from all over Asia were loaded for export, leading to the mistaken belief that the jars were manufactured in the Martaban area.

Its sturdy quality made it in great demand for both domestic and international markets as storage containers. Besides the Philippines this type of jar was found in a number of Asian and European shipwrecks in Southeast Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Mozambique, Kenya, St. Helena, as well as in terrestrial sites in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.

The Martaban jars from San Diego consist of large jars with dark red stoneware bodies and numerous inclusions. These are covered by a generally black glaze of uneven thickness. The decoration is made of light-colored clay in low relief, either stripes or rows of buttons resembling rivet heads. Thin beads of light gray clay outline the base of the neck and divide the belly into panels. The lower part of the body and the base are unglazed, as is the interior, except for a few splatters of glaze on the inner surface. The shoulders are broad and high that tapers towards the base. 

Archaeological study is very important in supporting accurate interpretation of past events, which helps in reconstructing our history. When a site is disturbed or pilfered, we lose information forever without the significant context to assist us in piecing together our story. This is much more valuable than the selfish individual’s monetary gain or enriching their personal collections. Our heritage and recounting its narrative through material culture benefits future generations and our aspirations as a nation. If you see or have knowledge of sites being looted, report to your local government authorities immediately or contact the closest NMP office near you.




Text by Bobby Orillaneda, poster by Nero Austero (MUCHD)

Underwater photos by Franck Goddio/Frédéric Osada 

©National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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