Why the ship was wrecked
A significant proportion of the ship itself has been found. The hull had an overall length of around 32 to 35 metres. The hull planking, still intact to a height of 1.5 metres in places, certainly helped to preserve the cargo. The divers found no signs of nails having being used in the ship’s construction: the planking was held together with wooden pegs and the members held in place with ropes, in a type of construction defined as the "lashed lugs" technique (cf. works by P.-Y. Manguin). No signs of any sternpost, mast hole, rigging or rudder were found, so nothing is known about the ship’s rig. Two cast iron anchors were brought up from the bottom: these may be of Chinese origin.
In the present state of research, it can be said that this was an Austronesian type ship, meaning that it may have come from South Vietnam (Champa), Malaysia or Indonesia. Analysis of the woods should provide more precise information about its origin.
No traces of deck were found, suggesting that it may have been a fully or partly open cargo ship. However, the archaeologists have not ruled out the possibility that it was partly decked, perhaps with a cabin on the stern.
According to Mr Flecker, the Intan wreck may have been built on a similar model. The boat Balanghai 5 (11th century), found during the Butuan excavations in Mindanao in the Philippines, also bears some resemblance to the Cirebon wreck although its lines are distinctly more slender.
In the 19th century, some Malaysian and Indonesian coastal sailing ships with large hulls that could transport substantial cargoes were grouped together under the name prao(-mayang) by François-Edmond Pâris during his voyages to study the shipbuilding methods of extra-European populations (published in Paris in 1843). They seem to bear strong similarities with the Cirebon wreck in terms of the appearance of the hull. The pinisi from Sulawesi, the traditional merchant sailing ships which still ply between the Java Sea and Florès Sea, are still built by the so-called "planking first" method, using wooden pegs to hold the planking in place. The various frame members are positioned inside once the hull is built. Many pinisi now have engines.
Pinisi at Sunda Kelapa, old port of Jakarta (2010). Photos : Copyright Luc Heymans
Since the cargo of the Cirebon wreck was hardly spread any distance from the tumulus and no signs of collision could be seen on the hull, it could be thought that the ship foundered due to being overladen: the weight of the metal ores found on board (cargo and ballast) has been estimated at around 150 tonnes, to which one must add the considerable weight of the cargo, ceramics and other materials. The ship, which sank onto a flat sea bed, has probably broken up gradually over time.