Friday, August 26, 2005


China to salvage 800-year-old ship on "Marine SilkRoad"


China View
By Yu Fei
August 25, 2005

BEIJING -- A merchant ship loaded with exquisite porcelain left a port in southern China to trade with foreign countries by the ancient "Marine Silk Road". It sank, probably due to stormy waves, and was buried quickly by silt and slept under the water for about 800 years.

The sunk ship, dated back to the early Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), was the first ancient vessel discovered on the "Marine Silk Road" of the South China Sea and was named "Nanhai No.1", meaning South China Sea No.1.

Chinese archaeologists, using global positioning system (GPS) technology, have accurately located the ship and will make a huge"steel basket" to salvage the ship with the silt around it together.

"It is unprecedented in the field of underwater archaeology both at home and abroad," Zhang Wei, director of the Underwater Archaeology Center at China's National Museum, told Xinhua on Thursday.

Zhang said that traditionally archaeologists would excavate therelics on the sunken boat first and then salvage the boat.

"In order to better protect the precious relics on Nanhai No.1,and gain essential information, we plan to salvage the ship with silt together and move it into specially built museum to do the excavation carefully," Zhang said.

As early as 2,000 years ago, ancient Chinese traders began to ship chinaware, silk and cloth textiles and other commodities to foreign countries along a trading route starting from ports at today's Guangdong and Fujian provinces to countries in southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.

The maritime trading route, known as the "Marine Silk Road", together with the ancient Silk Road running through the hinterlandof Asia and Europe, were the bridges connecting the ancient civilizations in the east and west.

Nanhai No.1, accidentally found in 1987, is located some 20 seamiles west of Hailing Island of Yangjiang City in south China's Guangdong Province, and more than 20 meters deep in the sea. The ship, more than 25 meters long, is the largest cargo ship from theSong Dynasty discovered so far.

Green glazed porcelain plates, tin pots, shadowy blue porcelains and other rare antiques have been found during the initial exploration of the ship. Archaeologists estimate that there are probably 50,000 to 70,000 relics on the ship.

The two meters of silt have helped protect the treasures and the ship during the 800 years, but have also brought difficulties to archaeologists in excavation.

"We could see nothing in the water area, and could only work bytouch in the silt," said Zhang Wanxing, a member of China's national underwater archaeological team.

Measuring, drawing and photographing the relics were almost impossible. Drainage of the silt in the sea would cause damage to the porcelain on the ship, said Zhang.

"At last, we chose the plan to salvage the ship and silt together," said Zhang, adding that Guangdong Province has earmarked 150 million yuan (about 18.5 million US dollars) to build a "Marine Silk Road Museum", to preserve the salvaged ancient ship.

In order to avoid damage to the relics caused by a change of environment and pressure, the ancient ship, wrapped in silt, will be put in a huge glass pool, in which water temperature, pressure and other environmental conditions will be the same as on the sea bed where the ship has slept for 800 years.

Archaeologists will conduct thorough excavations of the ship inthe pool, said Zhang.
Looking through the glass of the pool, visitors may observe thearchaeologists' work. "Some of qualified visitors may even dive into the water to watch the excavation closely after some training," said Zhang.

Li Peisong, director of the archaeological department of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said the creative excavation and protection plan, unprecedented in the world, is still under repeated discussions by cultural relics experts in China.

The experts have offered many suggestions to make the plan perfect and ensure the safety of the relics during the salvage andtransfer of the ancient ship, said Li.

So far, Chinese archaeologists have found more than 10 relic sites of ancient ships along the "Marine Silk Road". The excavation of Nanhai No.1 will be of great importance to the research of the "Marine Silk Road", the history of China's foreigntrade, cultural exchange, porcelain, shipbuilding and navigation, said Zhang Wei.


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