Groping in the frigid darkness in the South China Sea, underwater archaeologist Sun Jian suddenly touched something in 20-meter deep waters.
“It must be a big ship,” he thought as he moved forward.
The find was the most significant ever maritime archaeological discovery in China — a fully laden merchant ship that sank at the heart of the ancient Maritime Silk Road about eight centuries ago.
“We had to retrieve the wreck not just because of its massive treasure, but also for its information on ancient China’s navigation, shipbuilding and overseas trade,” says Sun.
Sun is technical director of the Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Center of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. One of the two heads of the archaeological team, he has dedicated himself to the mission since the “first touch” in 2000.
The well-preserved wooden ship dates back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). The remains are about 22.15 meters long and 9.9 meters wide. It has an eminent name, Nanhai No. 1, meaning “South China Sea No. 1”.
“China had never before attempted to recover and preserve an ancient merchant shipwreck before the find,” says Sun.
Shipbuilding was once a measure of a civilization’s scientific and technological development, as well as means to communicate with other distant societies and exchange culture and goods.
The short and stout vessel was a model widely used in ancient China, designed to be safe, stable and capacious.
“Luckily, some of the structure of the wreck was well preserved in the deep water — a rare underwater archaeological find in China,” says Sun.
Based on the excavated relics and materials, archaeologists estimate the ship dates back to the mid or late Song Dynasty, or early or mid 13th Century.
The remarkable discovery was triggered in 1987, when a joint Chinese-British salvage team fished up porcelain items of the Song Dynasty while searching for a sunken ship of the East India Company from the 18th Century off the coast of Yangjiang, south China’s Guangdong Province.
After much exploration and pre-excavation work, the Nanhai No. 1 was transferred to a huge caisson, 40 meters long, 14 meters wide and 8 meters high in December 2007.
Since then, it has been submerged in a specially built pool, dubbed the “Crystal Palace”, at the Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum, on Yangjiang’s Hailing Island.
The wreck site was on the ancient Maritime Silk Road, which connected China with south, west and central Asia and Europe, bridging Eastern and Western cultures.
Sun says the Song Dynasty had a highly developed economy and trade. “It was sailing on the long Maritime Silk Road, evidence of China’s shipbuilding skills and flourishing overseas trade,” he says.
As of early January, more than 14,000 relics had been retrieved from the site. Archaeologists have excavated hundreds of gold, silver and copper relics and about 17,000 copper coins.
But most of the relics are porcelain — pots, bottles, bowls and plates produced by famous kilns in places in modern Jiangxi, Fujian and Zhejiang, says Liu Chengji, deputy head of the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, and head of the archaeological team.
Some relics had the names of shops and places, which he believed reflected a developed commercial economy.
“Archaeologists have found some of the porcelain, jewelry and carvings have exotic features. The styles and decorations of some of the porcelain might have been customized for Islamic countries,” says Liu.
“Some personal belongings, such as bracelets, rings and necklaces, were also discovered. These items showed the vessel had a number of merchants and passengers aboard.”
It is possible they included Arab and Indian merchants.
The excavated bones of sheep and birds, as well as plant specimens, are expected to offer clues as to where the ship sailed, unveiling more details of the ancient trade route.
The excavation of the vessel’s inside will be completed in 2016.
The Maritime Silk Road, like the ancient Silk Road, was not only a route of trade, but of communication among civilizations.
“Coastal Guangdong holds the DNA of China’s external exchanges and trade,” says Long Jiayou, director with the Guangdong Provincial Cultural Heritage Bureau.
Guangdong had the longest history and most external associations of the Chinese regions on the route.
“Guangdong is also on the route of China’s Belt and Road initiative with its long history and massive overseas trade volume,” says Long.
The Belt and Road Initiative aims to boost connectivity and common development along the ancient land and maritime Silk Roads.
The excavation of the Nanhai No. 1 adds historic significance.
“It has brought China new concepts, innovative methods and technologies in underwater archaeology. Moreover, it is a crucial model for the protection of relics along the Maritime Silk Road,” says Long.
Guangdong has about 600 relics sites spanning its ancient commerce, transport and history. It plans to explore other major relics sites, along the Maritime Silk Road, including the ancient Xuwen harbor.
“We will try the best to unlock the secrets of the Nanhai No. 1,” says Long, “exploring its ancient glory and its modern value.”