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China Daily Global / 2021-06 / 23 / Page002

Marine archaeologist's 24-year wait to survey ocean site pays off

China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-06-23 00:00

In 1992, maritime archaeologist Michael Flecker applied for a license to survey waters surrounding a rocky outcrop off Singapore, an act he described at a public lecture 26 years later as "a little ahead of my time".

It was not until 2016 that Flecker led a team to study waters around Pedra Branca. This work uncovered two historical wrecks by 2019-the first containing artifacts dating to the 14th century.

At the lecture in 2018, organized by the Singapore Maritime Heritage Interest Group and the Marine Offshore Oil and Gas Association, Flecker said his initial application had been put aside.

In the meantime, the Australian added more than 20 archaeological projects to his resume, including a Tang Dynasty (618-907) shipwreck near Belitung in Indonesia. The artifacts from this discovery are displayed at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.

The 58-year-old also earned a PhD in maritime archaeology from the National University of Singapore, and in 2015 joined the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' YusofIshak Institute as a visiting fellow.

Flecker, who has lived in Singapore for almost four decades and has taken part in more than 30 overseas archaeological projects in that time, told The Straits Times how he felt about finally conducting an excavation in the island state's waters.

"It's way beyond any other. There are others-the Belitung wreck is a highlight of course. But I've been living in Singapore for nearly 37 years now, so it's fantastic to be able to work on some groundbreaking project which is directly related to its early heydays-the Temasek period.

"There are some places in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea where you can see a rig or a rock out in the middle of nowhere, and it's something that would be worth spending a lot of time and effort looking at, because the probability of a wreck being there is very high," he said.

Over time, ships have run into trouble off Pedra Branca. In his lecture in 2018, Flecker listed examples, including the 1796 wreck of the India-built merchant vessel Shah Munchah, which he found in 2019.

In 1596, Dutch merchant John Huyghen van Linschoten described Pedra Branca as "where ships that come and go from China do oftentimes pass in great danger and some are left upon it".

Hydrographer James Horsburgh, whom the lighthouse built on Pedra Branca in 1851 is named after, wrote in 1809 of the demise of the Shah Munchah. He reported that the vessel was "totally lost" by the tide forcing her on the outcrop while the ship was trying to change course.

Flecker said, "Before she could do that, she was just piled onto the rocks by the current-and the current out there is vicious."

Having waited more than two decades to study the infamous site, he and his team have left no stone unturned in the surveys they have carried out since 2016.

Flecker said they conducted a thorough survey up to 500 meters off Pedra Branca in shallow waters surrounding the island, adding that it is unlikely more wrecks will be found there.

"We've covered all the areas with the highest wrecking potential, so we've essentially looked everywhere a vessel could strike," he added.

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