Unlocking the secrets of ancient global trade

In world-first research enabled by an extraordinary gift, Flinders University archaeologists will lead an international consortium to discover the origin of ancient ceramics from the Maritime Silk Route.

Beginning in the mid 1400s, the Maritime Silk Route witnessed the largest known expansion of global trade, but the true legacy of objects retrieved from this time has not been fully understood because most were salvaged and dispersed without the archaeological recordings of their find-spots.

Thanks to funding from the Australian Research Council and contributions from its partners, archaeologists and heritage specialists from Australia, Indonesia, and across Southeast Asia will reveal the stories behind the largest known collections of trade ceramic in the world.

The international research team, led by Flinders University archaeologist Dr Martin Polkinghorne, will apply methods of archaeological science to vast collections held by the Republic of Indonesia, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, and another amassed by barrister and collector Michael Abbott AO QC.

‘Our first task will be reuniting the pieces with the ships they came from, and this will develop a detailed narrative of ancient global trade on the doorstep of Australia’, Dr Polkinghorne says.

‘We will work hand-in-hand with regional colleagues, especially from Indonesia. The intention is to ensure the pieces are correctly provenanced and to reconnect them with the communities of their origins to restore their cultural value.’

Expected to take more than four years, the research project will foster opportunities for higher degree research students from Indonesia and Southeast Asia to come Flinders to investigate underwater cultural heritage.

‘This is great opportunity to work together with Flinders University to re-write the historical narrative of the collections recovered from Indonesian waters. These collections are extensive source of knowledge and we believe that good interpretation will bring an awareness and involvement of public, particularly young generations, to better understanding of Indonesia maritime past,’ says Dr. Miftahul Huda from the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Republic of Indonesia.

In Australia, the team will research the origins of Mr Abbott’s collection, now entrusted to Flinders University. Comprising more than 2,300 pieces, it is believed to be the most extensive collection of trade ceramics in Australia.

‘It’s important to recognise that this international collaboration will lead the way in evaluating these types of ceramics and work to discover the context of their origins,’ says Mr Abbott.

Mr Abbott’s gift to the University, and a significant donation from his good friend Alastair Hunter OAM, will enable Dr Polkinghorne and his team to uncover their historical and cultural stories.

‘I am thrilled to have the opportunity to support this project, for academic purposes alongside fostering and strengthening Australia’s relationships with our Indonesian neighbours,’ says Mr Hunter.

‘My late parents, Tom and Elizabeth Hunter, were passionate collectors of art and antiques, including Asian ceramics and objects. They would consider this project a wonderful investment in education and sharing international research.

‘It is to this team’s great credit that these extensive collections will be preserved and curated for public benefit.’

Flinders University Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Robert Saint says this generous donation of an extraordinary collection of ancient ceramics, coupled with success in a competitive ARC research funding scheme, is an outstanding example of private donors and public funding supporting the pursuit of knowledge through cutting edge research.

‘This generosity is enabling Flinders archaeologists to embark on a milestone 4-year project which will reveal much about the historic importance of these once-lost ancient ceramics while potentially facilitating their repatriation to South-East Asia,’ says Professor Saint.

‘Working alongside colleagues from Indonesia and in collaboration with the communities at the sites of origin, our archaeologists will seek to reveal the significance of these cultural objects to learn much more about the ancient Maritime Silk Route.’

By employing and enhancing international conventions that relate to these collections, Dr Polkinghorne and his team hope to preserve the underwater cultural heritage of our region for future generations.

Reuniting cargoes: Underwater Cultural Heritage of the Maritime Silk Route is supported by the Australian Research Council, Linkage Project ID: LP210200165



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