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Nation hurries to salvage undersea cultural relics
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-07-02 10:11

Bending his back low and hunching his shoulders, archaeologist Zhang Wei tried four times to light a cigarette in the harsh wind sweeping the shore of the South China Sea.

Members of the Chinese archaeological team working at "Shipwreck No 1 in the South China Sea." [file photo]
"It took me weeks to learn to smoke in this wind at our seaside working station," said the scholar in his 50s when he finally put the lit cigarette between his sunburned lips and took quick breaths to keep the fire from dying out.

"We don't have such problems at sea. There is not even a little breeze on board."

Since 2001 Zhang has led a team of about 12 underwater archaeologists, including one woman, to salvage relics from a millennium-old shipwreck.

The site is called "Shipwreck No 1 in the South China Sea" by Chinese authorities and dubbed the "Titanic of China" by the media.

The team has deliberately shunned the limelight, and has released little information about its work.

Some porcelain bowls found at "Shipwreck No 1 in the South China Sea." [file photo]
However, speculation about its achievements have hit news headlines, since the public is curious about the wreckage of the merchant ship from the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

"The vessel is expected to contain 40,000 to 60,000 relics, mostly invaluable ceramics from about 1,000 years ago," said the country's official Xinhua News Agency.

Among the relics, "more than 10,000 have been salvaged from the 30-metre-long, 10-metre-wide wooden oceanic ship, which foundered possibly on its way to the Middle East," Zhang said.

"Shipwreck No 1," with its incredible treasures, has captured the imagination and aroused concern from the public.

It is just one of "more than 2,000 shipwrecks lying at the bottom of the South China Sea," said Wu Shicun, director of the governmental South China Sea Research Centre based in Haikou of Hainan Province.

They are in danger of "being damaged or endangered by mushrooming illegal salvages and ensuing dealings in the international art markets.".

"It's a matter not only of necessity but also of urgency to adopt an international instrument to preserve the country's rich heritage hidden at the seabed, of which we still have no clear concept of their number and location," said He Shuzhong, head of the office of laws, policies and regulations of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

He said the country is to join as soon as possible, probably early next year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which was adopted in 2001 by the UNESCO General Conference.

By the end of October the Chinese authorities will have completed a draft of a revised version of its current regulation on underwater cultural heritage protection, issued in 1989, to be consistent with the UNESCO convention, he said.

Underwater cultural heritage, as defined by the UNESCO, consists of historic shipwrecks, sunken cities and structures such as the Alexandria Lighthouse, underwater cave paintings and Neolithic lake settlements.

In China they include mainly ancient shipwrecks.

"Damage to the underwater cultural heritage of China, done mainly by commercial salvages on historic shipwrecks, has probably been more serious than the damage to land-based heritage sites, but has gone largely neglected.

"The world's treasure hunters have turned their attention to ancient sunken vessels in the past decade. They can often make greater profits with fewer risks out of the commercial salvages than of tomb raiding," he said.

The underwater archaeology of China came into being partly as a result of a world-shocking salvage in the South China Sea and the ensuing auction of relics at the Christie's Auction House in Amsterdam, Holland in late April and early May 1986, said Zhang.

Michel Harcher, the British salvager, sold for US$20 million at the auction the ceramics and gold from a Chinese boat that sunk in 1752.

A year after the auction, China's first and only underwater archaeological research centre was founded at the National Museum of Chinese History (today's National Museum of China), with support from the country's central government. Zhang became its director.

After receiving training abroad and making fruitful finds at more than 10 shipwrecks scattered along China's coast, archaeologists with the Beijing-based centre, Guangdong and Fujian provincial museums and Xiamen University embarked on the "Shipwreck No 1 in the South China Sea" in 2001.

It has been the largest underwater archaeological project launched in the country, said Zhang.

The shipwreck was discovered by accident in 1987 by a British company, which was salvaging another sunken vessel jointly with a Chinese company in the sea area between Dongtai and Yangjiang, South China's Guangdong Province.

Hidden about 30 metres offshore at a river mouth, it has to be cleared of the mud and sands that bury it each year before archaeologists kick off the annual four-month excavation in March.

Contrary to media speculation that the vessel may be lifted wholly out of water this year, a more conservative approach has been adopted.

They work mostly on the sea bed, despite the difficulties.

Professional divers bind ropes around the surface of the shipwreck, and tie one end of a rope onto the stern and the other on a platform built above the sea surface.

Archaeologists arrive at the platform early each morning in two salvage boats.

Two to a group, they dive in turn down to the stern of the vessel and make their way forward along the ropes.

"The shipwreck lies 20 to 25 metres beneath the sea surface, and it's absolutely dark when it comes to more than 20 metres underwater," said Zhang.

"We cannot see anything when we touch the ship. It's so cold, dark and silent. It's like dropping from a hot sauna to a refrigerator.

"The wood of the ship has been well preserved and it gives a clear sound when knocked. There were clumped masses in the ship and we send them aboard," he added.

In those clumped masses archaeologists found ceramics, mostly the blue and white and sometimes the green glazed, remains of gold and iron artifacts and animal bones.

"No human skeletons have been found at the site. A ship of that size should have had a crew of more than 20. People must have struggled for their lives and human bones can hardly be preserved long in the water," said the team leader.

Zhang said the find at the shipwreck is greater than a Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) ship discovered at the floor of Bohai Sea at Suizhong, Northeast China's Liaoning Province in 1993.

The latter was voted by the Chinese Archaeological Society to be one of the 10 most important archaeological finds.

Ceramic businesses

Among the ancient ceramics salvaged, many of which remain intact, a large number were made in Arabian styles.

"The ceramics were possibly to be sold in Arabian markets. A millennium ago merchant ships were recorded to shuttle frequently between the two civilizations," said Wu Chunming, historian with Xiamen University, who is a member of Zhang's team.

"Chinese merchant ships reached Egypt and Rome as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Cargoes of Chinese ceramics, discovered in shipwrecks by the Korean Peninsula, Thailand, the Philippines and as far as in the Red Sea all demonstrate the prosperity of international trade in ancient times," he said.

There were about 50 regular international trade routes before rulers of the late Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties banned maritime trade.

All those going south to the Indian Ocean and west to the Middle East, eastern Africa and Europe had to cross the South China Sea, where many ships foundered at a natural barrier made of submerged coral reefs, said Wu.

Today some fishermen on the islands in the South China Sea are reaping benefits from the ancient businesses as they salvage ceramics and other relics from shipwrecks and sell them to art dealers travelling in the area. Many of the relics are later circulated in international art markets.

Unlike archaeologists, fishermen bomb the sea floor with explosives and collect what remains intact, said Zhang.

Similar tragedies happen with underwater heritage sites along the Chinese coast, especially in Changdao of East China's Shandong Province.

"In art markets of major Chinese cities we can often see antiques with shells clinging to their surface. They have been taken from shipwrecks," he said.

International treasure hunters, who often take chances in the "grey area" between Chinese and international legal instruments, have been more unscrupulous.

Evidence has come from large public sales of salvaged Chinese relics in the last two years. Prices have hit more than US$10 million. "The UNESCO convention of 2001 is the only way that these underwater treasures can be saved in such situations. It forbids any commercial salvage of underwater cultural heritage," said Fu Kuen-chen, professor of marine and coastal law with Xiamen University.

"The protection of underwater cultural heritage, an integral part of the common heritage of humanity, needs the effort of more than one country but that of the world," said Fu, who is building a multi-disciplinary research centre on the protection of underwater cultural heritage at the university.

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