The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, June 03, 2006



Here’s a mystery that you, learned reader, may be able to help solve.

Last year a lithe lad scavenging in the bed of the Solo River near Bojonegoro in East Java found a heavy slab of timber jutting out of the mud.

It had been sawn or hewn and looked significant. Villagers and officials agreed and started sluicing away the mud. Their efforts revealed a splendid sight – a well-preserved broad-beamed 25-metre barge. The design was strange - local boats are narrow and less than half that length.

It seems the barge was oar-powered, with benches for rowers and ports for rowlocks.

On the planked sides are wave-like motifs and a diagram of an arrow on a stick. On an internal timber a mark has been transcribed as 1612. Does this mean the barge is almost four centuries old? If so it’s a precious and important find indeed.

As the rainy season was due with the river set to rise 20 metres or more it was decided to shift the big boat last September. Empty oil barrels were packed around the sides. It was floated downstream and then winched out.

Though not with sufficient care.

The once almost-intact barge now lies high on the riverbank in front of a cemetery, crumbling, unsheltered and forlorn. The sun has shrunk the teak planking and the hull is collapsing. Insects have invaded the wood. The ten centimetre iron nails used in parts of the construction are rusting. The barge is propped by bamboo poles and steel stakes. It’s held together by a tangle of blue rope and metal laths.

In the mud it looked snug in its submarine haven. On land it looks grotesque.

Local government officers agreed the barge needed reconstruction, shelter and a better presentation. “We need a lot more money to do this,” said Dari Suprayitno, head of the archaeological section of the Bojonegoro Regency, 120 km northwest of Surabaya. “It would have been costly and difficult to get big cranes to lift the barge.

“The barge is now close to Padang village. This used to be a riverbank market and port before the river silted and changed course. We’re putting in an access path.”

Timbers said to have come from a cabin have been moved to the private house of Budiono, the man who held the sand mining lease where the barge was found. They’re stored alongside sacks of fertiliser. Some planks have painted suns with the red still preserved - plus the piece with the faint ‘1612’ mark.

Your reporter wondered: If the craft was truly ancient why Arabic numerals had been used and not Javanese lettering or Chinese characters? And why the Christian calendar? Why were the numbers crudely cut unlike the careful designs on the hull? Maybe it’s not 1612 but 16, 17 and somewhere else is 14 and 15 – the tally of a load.

Or has some local wag been to work with a penknife in the past few months?

A human skull found at the site has been buried in the local graveyard without being dated. Samples of the timber have been taken to West Java for examination but no results have returned.

Locals convinced of the barge’s antiquity have linked it to the Singosari kingdom of 700 years ago. Others claim it’s a royal Thai barge because someone has said the teak used can be found only in Thailand and Kalimantan.

Dari said superstitious folk have been using water from the hull in a bid to cure pains believing the ship has mystical properties. The more pragmatic hope the barge will become internationally famous and draw awed cash-laden tourists.

But there’s little chance of that unless urgent action is taken to preserve the wreck, according to French marine anthropologist Michael Johnson.

“If the timbers aren’t shaded and put in a bath of fresh water and sugar to maintain the cellular structure of the wood it will soon be a pile of dust,” he said.

“At the very least a sprinkler system should be used to keep the wood wet while detailed drawings are made.”

Johnson, who has been working with staff and students at Surabaya’s Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS) on wooden boat building projects, described the barge as “a very impressive boat, not dissimilar to a Viking vessel and well worth preserving.”

However he said its provenance was a mystery. It may have had a crew of 40 to 50 rowers and would probably have been confined to rivers and coastal waters. It could have been used for regal travel, colonial administration or trade.

The designs could be significant. However they might be just a creative signwriter’s idea of a pleasant decoration. Carving a date would be most unusual, he said.

“The thwarts are consistent with Javanese construction but the frames are not,” he said. “These may have been added later. A boat like this could have been rebuilt many times.

“Nails were introduced by the Dutch but not widely employed in wooden boats till after the Revolution. The nails may have been used to strengthen the planks which have been pegged with wood.

“The loss of a vessel this size would have been a major event in the district. Because no-one remembers the catastrophe it must have sunk at least four generations ago and beyond living memory.” There were no obvious signs of hull damage when the boat was discovered.

Johnson, an expert on boats from the early 1700s to the mid 20th century said the design should be checked against carvings of boats at Borobudur temple. These are the earliest known descriptions of Indonesian craft.

Little work had been done to describe the large number of designs of Indonesian craft except by a French admiral in the early 19th century. His sketches are held in a Paris museum.

“If this barge is preserved it will lift the international status of Indonesia and its long-running maritime culture,” Johnson said. “It’s a unique find and a worthy artefact. It needs to be stabilised before it deteriorates further.”

(Readers who can help identify the craft are invited to contact Duncan Graham at ).

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 June 2006)



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