A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Excavations off Japan's coast are uncovering Kublai Khan's ill-fated invasion fleet.
Stepping off the dock into the warm, murky waters of Imari Bay, I swam to the bottom, then followed a line staked out down a steep slope. The visibility was poor, particularly as excavations had stirred up soft mud, but suddenly I saw the wreck. Unlike other sites I've dived on, the seabed here was not dominated by a large hull. Instead, clusters of timbers and artifacts suggested that a ship, or ships, had crashed into the shore and been ripped apart.
There were bright red leather armor fragments, a pottery bowl decorated with calligraphy, and wood with what seemed like fresh burn marks. My heart started to pound when I swam up to one object and realized it was an intact Mongol helmet. Nearby was a cluster of iron arrow tips and a round ceramic object, a tetsuhau, or bomb. Scholars had doubted whether such bombs, filled with black powder, existed this early, yet here it was. I just floated there, lost in thought that the detritus of this ancient battle lay here as fresh as if the ship had sunk yesterday, not seven centuries ago. The experience brought the story of Kublai Khan's invasions of Japan and the kamikaze--the legendary "divine wind" said to have destroyed his fleets in 1274 and 1281--into the realm of the tangible, touchable past.
Broken into fragments and scattered by the storm that wrecked it, the ship has already yielded thousands of artifacts, many remarkably well preserved by centuries of burial in silt. As amazing as the artifacts is the ship itself. The hull, made of iron-fastened planks with a large keel that has just started to emerge from the sea floor, had watertight compartments. Although the Japanese archaeologists caution that they have not yet completed excavation of the site, the warship appears to have been about 230 feet in length, twice as big as contemporary European ones. The huge anchor, indicative of the vessel's size, is a massive wood-and-stone assembly weighing more than a ton. Its red oak stock, now broken, was 23 feet long. Analysis of the wood and the granite used in the anchor shows that they originated in China's Fujian Province, site of a major trading port and a marshaling point for the fleet that attacked Japan in 1281. As subjects of the Mongols, China's Sung Dynasty provided most of the fleet--4,400 ships according to Chinese records--and many of the troops for the invasion.
In the 1920s, Japanese archaeologists began excavating remains of a 12.4-mile-long defensive wall built in and around the ancient port of Hakata (modern Fukuoka) in anticipation of the 1281 invasion. These investigations were part of a nationalistic drive to find and restore portions of the wall in order to reinforce the story of Japan's miraculous rescue, thanks to the emperor and his divine ancestors who sent the kamikaze. The story of the invasion and the kamikaze grew in importance to the Japanese government's reinterpretation of its past as the nation prepared for war.
After the end of World War II, archaeological work around Fukuoka occasionally yielded stone anchor stocks thought to be from the Mongol fleets, although Hakata's long history as a port might have accounted for such finds. The possibility of discovering more concrete evidence of the invasions led Torao Mozai, a Tokyo University engineering professor, to Takashima in 1980 to see what might lie on the seabed there. On Mozai's first trip, local fishermen who had trawled the bottom of Imari Bay for generations showed him ceramic pots and other finds brought up in their nets that hinted at a number of shipwrecks. One find piqued Mozai's interest. Discarded in a fisherman's toolbox was a square bronze artifact. Engraved in Chinese and in Phagspa, a written form of Mongolian, it was the personal seal of a Mongol commander. The seal was clear evidence that the fishermen were pulling up relics from Kublai Khan's lost fleets.
Mozai, known as the "father of underwater archaeology" in Japan, used sonar to survey the sea floor. Divers checking promising sonar contacts in 1981 recovered iron swords, stone catapult balls, spearheads, stone hand mills for grinding rice (although some may have been used to prepare gunpowder), and stone anchor stocks. Mozai's finds paved the way for a new generation of Japanese archaeologists to work in the waters off Takashima, among them Kenzo Hayashida.
Since 1991, Hayashida and KOSUWA, which he founded, have conducted annual field seasons at Takashima, surveying the bottom of Imari Bay and performing limited excavations to gauge the number of potential wreck sites and the range of material culture remaining on the seabed after centuries of typhoons and generations of fishermen using dragnets and trawls. In 1994, KOSUWA discovered three wood-and-stone anchors at Kozaki Harbor, a small cove on Takashima's southern coast. The largest anchor was still set, its rope cable stretched toward shore. Buried in mud about 500 feet from the shore and in 70 feet of water, the anchor was a tantalizing clue that a wreck lay nearby. But no massive target appeared in the probes of the surrounding area, just a number of smaller anomalies. Suspecting that this might be a wreck that had broken up, either in 1281 or through the action of typhoons, Hayashida began excavation. In the 1994-1995 season, KOSUWA recovered 135 artifacts near the shoreline, then slowly traced the finds back into deeper water through the 2001 season.
That October, the years of fieldwork paid off with the discovery of the ship's remains. After 20 years of investigation, the waters of Imari Bay finally yielded, albeit in more than one piece, one of the khan's ships. But government-financed construction of a new fish-farming installation directly atop the wreck site was slated to begin shortly. While that project provided funds to KOSUWA's investigations, the 2,600-square-foot site had to be completely excavated by the end of 2002. Work this past year--aided by a large team of divers, underwater communication systems, and an intensive program of excavation in cooperation with the Takashima Museum of Folk History and Culture and the Fukuoka City Museum--proceeded rapidly.
In a series of dives, I was able to watch as the site yielded an incredible array of well-preserved features and artifacts. The main portion of the wreck site lies in 45 feet of water and is buried beneath four feet of thick, viscous mud. Working with a documentation crew, I watched as they mapped each artifact, photographing and then recovering ceramics, tortoiseshell combs, scraps of red leather armor, hull planks, and part of a watertight bulkhead.
The artifacts range from personal effects, such as a small bowl on which was painted the name of its owner, a commander Weng, to provisions and the implements of war. The provisions include a large number of storage jars in various sizes, all of them hastily and crudely made. They hint at the rapid, if not rushed, pace of the khan's mobilization for the invasion. So, too, do the anchor stones. Chinese anchor stones of the period are usually large, well-carved, single stones that were set into the body of the stock to weight the anchor. Those found at Takashima are only roughly finished and made of two stones. More easily and quickly completed than their longer, more finished counterparts, they are not as strong as the single stone anchors. It may be that these hastily fabricated anchors contributed to the fleet's demise in the storm that dashed Kublai's hopes for the conquest of Japan.
The weapons recovered from the site include bundles of iron arrow tips or crossbow bolts, spearheads, and more than 80 swords and sabers. During one dive, I saw a Mongol helmet upright on the bottom, fish swimming in and out of its projecting brow. Close to the helmet was perhaps the most amazing discovery yet made--tetsuhau or ceramic projectile bomb. KOSUWA has recovered six of these from the wreck. They are the world's earliest known exploding projectiles and the earliest direct archaeological evidence of seagoing ordnance.
Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder around A.D. 300, and by 1100 huge paper bombs much like giant firecrackers were being used in battle. Chinese sources refer to catapult-launched exploding projectiles in 1221, but some historians have argued that the references date to later rewritings of the sources. In his recent book In Little Need of Divine Intervention, which analyzes two Japanese scrolls that depict the Mongol invasion, Bowdoin College historian Thomas Conlan suggests that a scene showing a samurai falling from his horse as a bomb explodes over him was a later addition. Conlan's research masterfully refutes many of the traditional myths and commonly held perceptions of the invasion, downplaying the number of ships and troops involved and arguing that it was not the storms but the Japanese defenders ashore, as well as confusion and a lack of coordination, that thwarted the khan's two invasions. But his suggestion that the exploding bomb is an anachronism has now been demolished by solid archaeological evidence. Moreover, when the Japanese x-rayed two intact bombs, they found that one was filled just with gunpowder while the other was packed with gunpowder and more than a dozen square pieces of iron shrapnel intended to cut down the enemy.
The site has yielded fragmentary human remains. A cranium, resting where a body had perhaps been pushed face down into the seabed, and a pelvis, possibly from the same individual, now rest in the conservation lab awaiting analysis. This state-of-the-art lab, at the Takashima Museum of Folk History and Culture, is filled with containers of freshwater in which artifacts rest. Initial study of the artifacts has revealed new information about the khan's forces. Only one percent of the finds can be attributed to a Mongolian origin; the rest are Chinese. The Mongol invasion was Mongol only in name and in the allegiance of the invading sailors and troops.
The future of the finds is uncertain. While the excavation has been fully funded by the Japanese government, it has only committed funding for conservation of ten percent of the collection. For now, the rest will remain in freshwater tanks. The existing museum is too small to house all of the artifacts, and Japan remains firmly gripped by economic recession. Given widespread interest, and the significance of the discovery, perhaps the time has come for an international funding effort to assist the expensive but archaeologically and culturally rewarding work being accomplished there.
Takashima Island's local government is interested in further exploration of the lost fleet of Kublai Khan, and Kenzo Hayashida and his colleagues continue to work off the island's shores. Hayashida believes, like Thomas Conlan and other historians, that the khan's fleet size was exaggerated, and that hundreds, not thousands, of wrecks lie buried here. Even so, the remains now emerging from the mud and water are one of the greatest underwater archaeological discoveries of our time, providing critical new information about Asian seafaring and military technology, as well as an invasion crushed by a legendary storm.
James P. Delgado, executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, is author of Lost Warships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea (Checkmark, 2001).Share