Depths of understanding

Depths of understanding

BEIJING, Dec. 19, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — A news report from

Shipwreck provides archaeologists with new clues to the extent of trade 700 years ago.

About 700 years ago, a Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) ship heavily loaded with porcelain sank in what is now the Shengbeiyu sea area near Gulei Peninsula, Zhangzhou, Fujian province. Despite the loss of the valuable cargo, the ill-fated ship was gradually forgotten with the passage of time.

That was, until recently.

In 2010, a typhoon made landfall in the Gulei Peninsula, washing breeding boxes into the sea. When divers tried to salvage the boxes, they were surprised to find scattered porcelain items. Intrigued, a search was launched and the shipwreck was discovered.

In 2014, 2016 and 2021, three archaeological surveys were conducted on the shipwreck, to confirm its location, state of preservation, and gauge the surrounding environment.

After estimating its value for research, a new archaeological effort, initiated last year, was carried out by the National Centre for Archaeology, the Fujian Provincial Institute of Archaeology and the Zhangzhou bureau of culture and tourism to retrieve cultural relics from it. The latest discoveries were announced at a news conference held by the National Cultural Heritage Administration in October.

The shipwreck, located in a trench, lies about 30 meters under the surface. Remains include the body of the vessel and scattered cargo, covering an area of about 300 square meters.

According to Chen Hao, deputy head of the archaeological team, the ship was sailing the ancient Maritime Silk Road, but reefs and turbulent currents created complex conditions. As a result, accidents occur frequently there, even today.

The remains of the vessel are about 16.95 meters long and 4.5 meters at the widest point. It has 10 sections with nine panels separating them. More than 17,000 cultural relics were retrieved from the water, most of which are celadon porcelain produced by kilns in Longquan, Zhejiang province. These include bowls, plates, dishes and cups dating back to the late period of the Yuan Dynasty.

“This is the ninth shipwreck we have excavated domestically. Compared to others, the high proportion of porcelain items from one single type of kiln on one ship is extremely rare in our archaeology,” says Liang Guoqing, head of the Shengbeiyu archaeological team.

Longquan celadon, which was regarded as “the first Chinese commodity with global appeal before the Age of Exploration”, has been found in shipwrecks all around the world, portraying the prosperous maritime trade in the Song (960-1279) and Yuan dynasties, according to Chen. He adds that an active and open maritime trade policy was implemented during the period, leading to a peak in maritime trade.

“The maritime routes linked numerous important ports, cities and countries across the Northern Hemisphere, and a large quantity of Chinese goods were shipped to various parts of the world along these routes. This global trade directly influenced the exchange and mutual learning between civilizations,” says Chen.

“The numerous sunken ships and precious artifacts discovered in domestic and international waters are important evidence of that historical period,” he adds.

They have also checked the packaging of the goods, and found that the porcelain items were protected by bamboo in both horizontal and vertical directions. Between the vessels there remain traces of a wild plant common in mountainous areas of Fujian and Zhejiang. “We believe the plant was used as a buffer in packaging since it was common and cheap,” says Chen.

Archaeologists have also salvaged some daily necessities of the crew members and articles they used for navigation, like pottery jars, seals, a ship lamp, a gauge bob and a bilge keel. Previously, archaeologists had only found a ship lamp from the Nan’ao No 1 shipwreck, which dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in the South China Sea near Nan’ao Island, Guangdong province, so this one is precious, according to Chen.

Historical literature and ancient paintings have depicted gauge bobs which were used to measure water depth. “Ancient sailors were afraid of running aground. The gauge bobs were used before the invention of sonar,” says Chen, adding that the newly discovered one was mainly made of lead.

“They are meaningful for our study of people’s life on board,” says Chen.

Another important find is the bilge keel, the only one ever found in China.

According to Chen, the bilge keel found from the Shengbeiyu shipwreck predates those used in the West during the 19th century by about 400 years.

“Since a bilge keel is easy to use and cheap, it’s still one of the most widely used facilities to reduce a ship’s tendency to roll. It is regarded as one of the most important contributions ancient Chinese people made to human navigation,” says Chen.

Archaeologists have made some innovative attempts to preserve the artifacts as they were being removed from the water. For example, they sprayed epoxy resin around the cultural relics underwater, which then formed a protective shell. After getting them out of water, they dismantled the shell and checked the artifacts.

“They were soaked in water for about 700 years and were very vulnerable. We adopted the new technique to ensure their integrity,” says Chen.

Archaeological studies on the Shuomen ancient port site in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, have revealed the port was a major distribution center for transporting Longquan celadon to overseas destinations during the Song and Yuan dynasties. Combining the two discoveries, archaeologists infer that the Shengbeiyu shipwreck was a private commercial ship transporting goods from the Wenzhou port to Southeast Asia.

“The archaeological efforts expended on Shuomen port and the Shengbeiyu shipwreck complement each other. They reveal details of a port and a ship respectively, displaying the history of the Maritime Silk Road, both of which are meaningful for our studies on the history of China’s maritime civilization,” says Jiang Bo, a professor at Shandong University’s School of History and Culture.

The archaeological work finished in October, and the site has been backfilled for protection.

According to Wang Guangyao, a researcher at the Palace Museum in Beijing, during the archaeological work on the Shengbeiyu shipwreck, archaeologists made breakthroughs in their methods and techniques, representing a major progress in the country’s underwater archaeology.

China has attached great importance to the development of underwater archaeology.

The National Cultural Heritage Administration has recently issued regulations on underwater archaeological work.

“The regulations highlight the technical specifications of underwater archaeological work, specify the key points of underwater archaeological techniques, and unify standards for data collection, archaeological records, and other aspects. They put forward higher requirements for underwater archaeological research and bring cultural relics back to life,” says a statement released by the administration.


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