Ancient Chinese shipwrecks reveal details on Silk Road trade

Chinese archeologists have begun excavating two 500-year-old shipwrecks in the South China Sea full of porcelain and stacked timber.
John Loeffler
Porcelain relics scattered around one of the shipwrecks in the South China Sea
Porcelain relics scattered around one of the shipwrecks in the South China Sea

Two 500-year-old shipwrecks filled with Ming Dynasty-era timber and porcelain off the coast on China in the South China Sea are being excavated, according to a Chinese government agency.

The excavations were first reported by China's National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA), and represent a major feat of deep-sea archeology.

Starting in April 2018, China's Archaeological Research Center of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, the Institute of Deep Sea Science and Engineering of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the South China Sea Museum of China, Hainan, established two deep-sea research projects to study ancient shipwrecks in the Xisha North Reef and Xisha Trough.

Among the findings were several Ming-era shipwrecks, with some full of porcelain goods and stacked timber, as well as one ship containing more than 100,000 pieces of porcelain crockery in a remarkably well-preserved condition. The shipwrecks are roughly 1,500 meters underwater, along the North Slope of the South China Sea, and show the direction of the ships moving in opposite directions.

"The State Administration of Cultural Heritage attached great importance to this discovery," an NCHA statement said. "quickly organized professional forces to formulate an underwater archaeological investigation plan, and carried out the protection and restoration of the extracted cultural relics."

Ancient Chinese shipwrecks reveal details on Silk Road trade
Ming-era porcelain found at a shipwreck site in the South China Sea

The No. 1 and No. 2 ships, in particular, have drawn the attention of archeologists as these date back to between 1488 and 1521 CE, and show the extent and kind of trade being conducted on the so-called Silk Road trade routes.

Yan Yalin, director of the NCHA's archaeology department said that the relics from the No. 1 shipwreck are spread out over a roughly 10 square-kilometer area of the seabed.

"The well-preserved relics are of high historical, scientific and artistic value. It may be a world-class archaeological discovery in the deep sea," Yan told The Star, a Malaysian news outlet. "The findings are key evidence of the ancient Maritime Silk Road, and a major breakthrough for historical study in Chinese overseas trade, navigation and porcelain."

By mid-June, researchers hope to assess the distribution of both the No. 1 and No. 2 wrecks and plan for the extensive data collection on the site and possibly gather some samples of the relics as well as the composition of the seafloor around them.

"[By] focusing on shipwrecks No. 1 and No. 2. ... [NCHA hopes to] carry out research and development of key technologies for deep-sea archaeology and research and development of special equipment, and accelerate the construction of a team of deep-sea archaeologists, [which will] effectively strengthen the protection and management of the two shipwreck sites to ensure the safety of the sites and cultural relics," NCHA said.