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Pandanan Shipwreck - Amazing Archeological Finds [Pandanan Island Coast of Southern Palawan]

The Pandanan Shipwreck is an archaeological site which was excavated in 1995 by the Underwater Archaeology Division of the National Museum of the Philippines in Pandanan Island, in the coast of Southern Palawan. The ship was surmised to be a Southeast Asian cargo boat travelling from either Vietnam or Southern China and is one of the best preserved pre-Spanish trading ships within the jurisdiction of Philippines. It is speculated that the ship stopped at some ports in mainland South East Asia to load trade wares. Bad weather might have led to the sinking of the ship.

The boat’s dimensions are about 25 to 30 meters long and about six to eight meters wide. It had a flat bottom which was suited for riverine water. The Pandanan shipwreck is considered a rare site dated approximately at the mid-15th century because, as per Sakuma (1989), the Chinese imperial court ordered complete banning of all private trading within this time.

Porcelain Blue and White Bowl 


Porcelain Blue and White Bowl  Pandanan Shipwreck



This ceramic object is declared as a National Cultural Treasure due to its age, rarity and unique craftsmanship.

In 1993, the Pandanan shipwreck was accidentally discovered by a pearl farm diver while looking for a missing basket containing pearls near Pandanan Island, southern Palawan. Two years later, the site was archaeologically excavated and yielded remains of a wooden ship that contained over 4,000 various objects from different countries. 

Pandanan Shipwreck ship drawing



The shipwreck is a merchant vessel of possibly Southeast Asian origins based on its cargo. Vietnamese ceramics from the north and central region of Vietnam comprised more than 70% of the ceramic cargo along with lesser quantities of Chinese and Thai ceramics as well as undetermined earthenware pots and stove. The non-ceramic items comprised glass beads, iron cauldrons, bronze gongs, small guns, a bronze weighing scale as well as other natural and manufactured products. A Chinese coin dated to the reign of Chinese emperor Yongle (1402–1424) of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) that provided the basis of the relative dating of the site.

Porcelain Blue and White Bowl  ceramic



The porcelain blue and white big bowl is very remarkable in that it has been manufactured in the 14th century during the short reign of the Mongolian-led Yuan Dynasty period (1279 – 1368), almost 100 years before the Pandanan vessel sailed in the middle of the 15th century. This period also saw the earliest mass production of porcelain blue and white ceramics, specifically during the years 1328 – 1352, making Yuan dynasty ceramics very rare due to its very narrow production and export period. 

The bowl has also a very remarkable decorations. The central design depicts two fabled beasts, the qilin (tɕʰǐ. lǐn or kî-lîn in Hokkien) and the phoenix, both very important motifs in Chinese mythology. The qilin, also known as a unicorn or a dragon horse, is perceived as the noblest of hairy animals and symbolized perfection. It is also a portent of benevolent government. The phoenix on the other hand, is a sacred bird and believed to be the king of all birds that symbolizes good fortune, the sun, fertility, abundant harvest, good luck and longevity.

Why was a 14th century bowl found in a 15th century ship? Archaeologists and scholars speculate that the bowl may have been a merchant’s heirloom piece and used as a trading commodity in exchange for Southeast Asian luxury goods. Another theory is that the bowl, along with other unique ceramics, were used as a tribute to a king or a ruler in order to ask permission to carry out trade activities. The blue and white bowl and the rest of the archaeological assemblage of the Pandanan shipwreck proves that the Philippines has been an active participant in international trade during the 15th century.


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Text poster by Bobby Orillaneda, Poster by Nero Austero/NMP MUCHD
©National Museum of the Philippines (2020)



Champa Ceramics

Champa Ceramics



These are high-fired, glazed stoneware ceramics named after the maritime-oriented Champa kingdom that existed from the 2nd to the 17th centuries CE in present-day Central Vietnam. Vietnamese ceramics in Philippine archaeological contexts came from two sources: the northern Hai Duong province and the central Binh Dinh province. They first appeared in the late 13th century CE and are generally associated with Chinese and Thai ceramics. Archaeological and historical research strongly suggest the 15th century CE as the peak of Southeast Asian ceramic exports possibly as a response to the Chinese ban on maritime trade (late 14th to the late 16th centuries CE) that severely restricted the outflow of Chinese ceramics.

One of the Champa kiln sites
One of the Champa kiln sites



Another Champa kiln site
Another Champa kiln site

Early investigations into Vietnamese ceramics revealed its wide distribution in the Philippines. The Carl Guthe (1922 – 1925) and H.O. Beyer explorations (1920s to the 1940s) reported Vietnamese wares from Luzon to Mindanao. Archaeological excavations in Santa Ana in Manila, Calatagan in Batangas Province, and in Cebu City yielded Vietnamese ceramics in funerary context associated with Chinese and Thai ceramics.

Photo of the Pandanan excavation with one of the NMP underwater archaeologists
Photo of the Pandanan excavation with one of the NMP underwater archaeologists



The Pandanan shipwreck carried a majority of Champa ceramics along with few northern Vietnamese blue and whites from Chu Dau kilns, Chinese Jingdezhen blue and whites and Longquan celadon, and large stoneware jars from the Maenam Noi kilns of Thailand. The Go Sanh and Cay Me kilns in Binh Dinh produced majority of these wares that comprised dishes that have greyish-blue, green or brown glazes with a stacking ring in the centre, brown-glazed cups as well as small and large brown-glazed jars with moulded floral, Buddhist and mythical animal designs.

The Pandanan shipwreck site when discovered by the NMP underwater archaeologists
The Pandanan shipwreck site when discovered by the NMP underwater archaeologists



The Champa ceramics affirm the commercial relationship between the Philippines and the kingdom of Champa that stretches back to the 10th century CE. The Chinese historical text Sung Shih (Sung History) mentions Butuan, a kingdom located in north-eastern Mindanao having ‘regular communications with Champa’. Proof of this economic and political interaction, whether direct or indirect (through China), seem to have continued up to the 15th century CE through the presence of Vietnamese ceramics from various archaeological sites all over the Philippines. The decline in the production and export of Champa wares started after the fall of Vijaya, the Cham capital in 1471 that triggered its eventual annexation to the northern Đại Việt kingdom.


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Text by Bobby Orillaneda and poster by Nero Austero (MUCHD)
Underwater photos by Gilbert Fournier, ceramic kiln site photos by Bobby Orillaneda
©National Museum of the Philippines (2020)


Indo-Pacific Beads


Indo-Pacific Beads Pandanan Shipwreck


In 1993, the site was accidentally discovered by a pearl farm diver looking for a missing basket of pearls near Pandanan Island in southern Palawan. Two years later, archaeological excavations by the #NationalMuseumPH in collaboration with the Ecofarm Systems, Inc. led to the recovery of glass beads along with 15th century CE (Common Era) Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese ceramics. The glass beads were found encrusted with corals inside many Vietnamese stoneware jars.


Indo-Pacific beads from various sources.
Indo-Pacific beads from various sources. (Image from the 2002 publication by Peter Francis “Asia's maritime bead trade: 300 BC to the present”)


Indo-Pacific beads were the most common and widely traded beads in precolonial maritime Southeast Asia. The term “Indo-Pacific beads” was coined by Peter Francis to define the beads’ color, material, geographic distribution, and manufacturing technique. Usually less than 6 mm, these glass beads comes in colors of monochrome opaque red, black, white, green, yellow, as well as translucent blue, green, and violet. They are undecorated and usually in cylindrical or oblate shapes. These glass beads are made by drawing out a thin tube from a hollow globe of molten glass then cooled. The glass tube is then broken into smaller individual beads.


Excavation on the Pandanan shipwreck site
Excavation on the Pandanan shipwreck site with one of NMP underwater archaeologist. Photo by Gilbert Fournier, 1995.


The glass beads from the Pandanan shipwreck consist of only two colors – opaque red and black. In 2006, Jun Cayron from the University of the Philippines-Archaeological Studies Program conducted a research entitled “Stringing the Past: An Archaeological Understanding of Early Southeast Asian Glass Bead Trade”, where he sourced the Indo-Pacific beads from Pandanan shipwreck to Sungai Mas site in Malaysia. This provided significant data on the bead trade pattern and distribution in Southeast Asia. Local products such as cotton, yellow wax, pearls, tortoise shells, and medicinal betel nuts were most likely used to trade for these beads.


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Text and poster by the NMP Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Division

© National Museum of the Philippines (2021)



Stone Ballasts 


Stone Ballasts


Ballasts are additional weights that ships must carry to compensate for the increased buoyancy and provide trim and balance. They influence vessel stability during unpredictable weather conditions and increase survivability at sea. Research shows that 10% of the ship’s tonnage is equivalent to the required weight of ballasting materials needed.


A cross section of a merchant ship and the relative location of stone ballasts.
A cross section of a merchant ship and the relative location of stone ballasts.


The stone ballast has probably been used since the beginning of seafaring. Before the late 19th Century CE, ships used solid ballast materials such as rocks and sand. Metals, dirt, corals, and water were also used as ballasts and can be found mixed with stone ballasts or used on their own. More often, rounded or stream-worn stones were preferred as ballasting materials to avoid abrading the ship’s hull. Stones can be added or removed as warranted by sea conditions. In ports, stone ballasts were usually dumped in the water in exchange for trade materials. On the other hand, ships are loaded with ballasting materials when their cargo holds are empty. Over the years, archaeological excavations exposed these stones in ancient harbors and shipwreck sites. Studies have also revealed that ballast stones were later used as building and paving materials and even as grave markers. 


A diver holding an artifact on siting on top of stone ballasts mound at the San Diego shipwreck site
A diver holding an artifact on siting on top of stone ballasts mound at the San Diego shipwreck site.


Stone ballasts are often regarded as “with no commercial value” and not looted, thereby providing ample materials for archaeological investigations. The National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) maritime archaeologists have recorded stone ballasts in more than 20 shipwreck sites during archaeological explorations from 1981 to 2019.  Currently, the NMP has collected 20 stone ballasts from different shipwreck sites in the country. Six rounded stone ballasts were recovered from the Pandanan shipwreck in southern Palawan. The stones were of volcanic and sedimentary rock materials that may suggest different sources and ports of origin. Thirteen basalt rocks (previously reported as granite stones) of various shapes and sizes were also recovered from Thitu Reef, in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea during exploration and excavation in 1996. The stones had different size and shapes and its weight ranged from 3,225 grams to 9,850 grams. These were believed to have been traded as building materials for Hindu temples based on other associated materials such as stone pillars with architectural designs and grave markers. A volcanic rock (possibly andesite) was also recovered recently from San Jose galleon shipwreck in Lubang Island, Occidental Mindoro during an archaeological survey and exploration in 2019 and 2020. 


Stone ballasts mound in in a shipreck site
Stone ballasts mound in in a shipreck site in Catanauan, Quezon Province.


While it is undeniable that porcelain and stoneware ceramics, potteries, jewelry, as well as gold and silver wares have commercial value and of great interest to the general public, stone ballasts are also useful archaeological data in uncovering shared maritime stories about the past. They can also provide direct evidences of international mobility and exchange as can be seen in shipwrecks, ports, and harbors. 



Vietnamese Blue and White Ceramics

Vietnamese Blue and White Ceramics


We also highlights the Vietnamese blue and white ceramics recovered from the Pandanan shipwreck in Pandanan Island, Balabac Municipality, southern Palawan Province.


Photomosaic of the Pandanan vessel.
Photomosaic of the Pandanan vessel.


Pandanan shipwreck contained predominantly stoneware Vietnamese ceramics along with a limited number of porcelain and stoneware ceramics from China and Thailand, as well as metal, glass, wood, and organic materials.


Finding a Vietnamese blue and white bowl during the Pandanan excavation.
Finding a Vietnamese blue and white bowl during the Pandanan excavation.


A hundred pieces of Vietnamese blue and white ceramics in the form of bottles, jars, jarlets, dishes, and bowls were retrieved. These were produced by the Chu Dau kilns in Hai Hung Province, northern Vietnam. The Chu Dau kilns were the only producers of underglaze blue wares besides China during the 14th to 16th centuries. The stylistic motifs such as plants, landscape, animals, and scrolls of the Chu Dau pieces bear great similarity with the Chinese styles. The Vietnamese potters were greatly influenced by Chinese potters over long periods of their history, especially after the Chinese occupation in the early 15th century CE. 


Stoneware jars and bowls from Vietnam where discovered at the Pandanan wrecksite.
Stoneware jars and bowls from Vietnam where discovered at the Pandanan wrecksite.


Despite this, Vietnamese potters incorporated their own distinct styles that make it quite different from the Chinese pieces. A peculiar technique for the Chu Dau ceramics is the iron wash painted on the base of the vessels, popularly known as ‘chocolate bottom’. This treatment varies in color from reddish- to dark-brown and gives a distinct and diagnostic look to the pieces.




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Text and Poster by Nero M. Austero/MUCHD 

Photo © Franck Goddio and World Wide First Inc.

© Poster Background Photo by Mike Barrow

©National Museum of the Philippines (2020)

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