Diving Thailand’s Pottery Wrecks
A deep wreck expedition yields a mother lode of artifacts.
By Bruce Konefe
Editor’s note: Contributor Bruce Konefe, a tech diving instructor based in Pattaya, Thailand, recently assisted divers from the country’s Underwater Archaeology Division in locating an ancient pottery wreck. Here is his report.
One of the reasons I enjoy living and diving in Thailand is the wealth of wreck dives that are discovered here on almost a daily basis.
The Gulf of Thailand is just littered with sunken vessels and for tech divers with the right skills, training, gear and experience, the 70-meter max depth in the Gulf is well within reach. Actually, the vast majority of the wrecks we have dived here are in the 50- to 60-meter range.
Some of the most exciting finds in the last 16 years have been ancient pottery wrecks—some thought to be up to 700 years old. These wrecks fall under the jurisdiction of the Underwater Archaeology Division of the Thai government’s Culture Ministry, and many of the artifacts that have been recovered to date are on display at the National Maritime Museum in Chanthaburi, Thailand. The museum’s collection includes thousands of ancient artifacts that have been found by Erbprem Vatcharangkul and his team of highly qualified trimix and rebreather divers.
The most recent discovery took place the summer of 2010 when we were given some GPS coordinates to a suspected wreck site. Our goal was to verify that this was actually a pottery wreck, measure its size and try to determine its origin. It took about a month of planning before we departed on a 4-day trip. The wreck site was in 65 meters of water, so we chose to use an 18/35 trimix blend—18 percent oxygen, 35 percent helium. The decompression gas of choice was a 50 percent nitrox blend with 100 percent oxygen on the deco line for emergency situations. Normally on a dive like this I would plan on 30 minutes of bottom time, but being so far out at sea and wanting to make at least two dives each day, I chose to limit my dives to just 20 minutes of bottom time. We would be diving 14 hours away from the nearest chamber (an outstanding six-place chamber run by the Thai Navy in Sattahip) so our dive planning included making sure we had plenty of extra oxygen onboard to treat any cases of decompression illness (DCI).
One of the local Samae San fishing boats had stumbled across this wreck and agreed to take us to the location. We loaded up the boat and left at about 8 p.m. in the evening. Leaving at this time would allow us to get good night’s sleep, arrive on-site early in the morning and have plenty of time to make two dives on the first day. Everyone was up by 7 a.m. for a breakfast of bacon and eggs and the pre-dive rituals of kitting up. My gear of choice for the expedition was a Pelagian closed-circuit rebreather.
As we started to descend, the visibility was awesome, but things started to get murky as we got closer to the bottom. Once we were about 20 meters from the bottom we could see that the captain had dropped his anchor right at the edge of what was indeed a significant pottery wreck. The wooden vessel and any containers that once held the pottery had long since rotted away, leaving behind neat little stacks of china about a meter high on the flat sandy bottom. Some of those stacks had been toppled by fishing nets over the years and there were thousands of pieces laying out on the ocean floor. The ship’s keel, and many more undisturbed stacks of china, were likely still buried beneath the sand, and they would hold clues to the identity of the wreck. But we left the site intact on this trip. Proper archaeological excavation would have to wait for another day.
Erbprem Vatcharangkul later reported that what we had discovered was a mixture of pottery coming from different countries and dating to the 1400s and 1500s. The majority of the recovered pieces probably came from Singhaburi, Sawankhalok and Sukhothai, all ports in Thailand, but there was also a small amount of blue and white Chinese pottery.
Bruce Konefe is an Instructor Trainer Director for ANDI, who has been teaching technical diving courses including rebreathers, cave, wreck and trimix for more than 15 years. Originally from the United States, he currently lives and dives in Thailand.