PETALING JAYA: Malaysia now has its own marine archaeology team following the successful excavation of the 170-year-old Desaru wreck off the coast of Johor.
Department of Museums and Antiquities director-general Datuk Dr Adi Taha said the seven staff of the newly-formed marine archaeology unit were involved in the Desaru project and were trained by Nanhai Marine Archaeology, the salvage company which located and excavated the wreck.
He said they learnt to dive, retrieve and record artifacts, as well as measure and draw wrecks.
Over six months, our staff experienced working in underwater conditions where visibility was very bad.
They started with zero knowledge of diving and marine archaeology but are now confident of working underwater, Adi said in an interview.
The Desaru was discovered in May 2001 by Nanhai Marine Archaeology.
It was believed to be heading towards Singapore or Malacca when it sank two nautical miles (3.6km) off the coast of Johor around 1830.
The 35m long and 8m wide vessel now sits in 20m of water.
Issued with a government contract to excavate the ship, Nanhai recovered the ship'scargo between October and November 2001.
It then excavated, mapped and measured the wreck from April to September 2002 and submitted the final report to the department last month.
Adi said the Desaru was the first Chinese junk excavated in Malaysian waters.
In the past, we only found their cargo but not the vessels. In the Desaru, we can see the remains of its hull.
We have been successful in systematically documenting the junk and the way it was built.
Nanhai managing director Sten Sjostrand said 894 dives were made to recover the ships cargo and map its structure.
Divers spent 1,034 hours underwater and retrieved 63,341 ceramic pieces.
This included 50,352 blue and white porcelain spoons.
The main volume was brown and black-glazed ware.
Chinese blue and white porcelain such as plates, bowls, teacups and jars constituted 7% of the cargo volume.
Adi said the department kept 20,000 ceramic pieces as the contract with Nanhai gave the government a 30% share.
While some pieces are exhibited at the National Museum, many are still undergoing conservation.
The treatment to remove salt from the ceramics will take another year as they have been soaked in sea water for some 170 years, Adi explained.
He stressed the government would not sell the ceramics. They will be shared with other museums in the country because they are national treasures, he said.
Adi said Nanhai received 70% of the ceramics as it had financed and carried out the archaeological excavation.
The company has completed conserving its share of the antique porcelain and begun selling them in exhibitions all over the country.
The Desaru also yielded 249 pieces of non-ceramic items, all kept by the department.
They include a brass smoking pipe, an ironing tool, coins, parts of opium pipes, a perfume bottle, inkpads, ear and tooth-cleaning pins, a cannon and various ship fittings.