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Experts scramble to save ancient ship with valuable cultural artifacts

Zheng Caixiong
Updated: Dec 9,2014 9:01 AM     China Daily

Archaeologists and relic experts are sparing no effort to protect an ancient wooden vessel and the large number of historical artifacts on board in the coastal city of Yangjiang, Guangdong province.

Sun Jian, technical director of the Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Center of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said a mildew deterrent and protective spray are being used at the site to prevent damage to the ship and artifacts now that the thick silt layer covering it has been cleared away.

The 21.58-meter-long, 9.55-meter-wide vessel that has been named South China Sea (Nanhai) No 1 was salvaged from a depth of 30 meters in the South China Sea in late 2007.

Since then, it has been submerged in a sealed pool, called the “Crystal Palace”, at the Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum on Yangjiang’s Hailing island.

“The iron caisson of the vessel was badly corroded with rust after being soaked in seawater for years, and the wooden frame of the vessel also needs to be further preserved,” Sun said.

White ants are a problem in Guangdong during summer, and parts of the wooden frame were found to have been damaged by the insects. Earlier this year, the archaeological department of Nanhai No 1 arranged for the ants to be exterminated.

The contract stipulates that no chemical products or disinfectants may be used that could damage the vessel’s wooden structure and relics or change their original color, Sun said.

“Special desalting pools, warehouses and labs have been established to help protect the relics,” he said.

Huang Tiejian, curator of the Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum, said the vessel and artifacts will be well-protected in the museum.

“The vessel and relics are of great value to study ancient Chinese shipbuilding, navigation and production, foreign trade and the production of ceramics,” Huang said.

The Maritime Silk Road, like the ancient Silk Road that connected China with South, West and Central Asia and Europe, connected Eastern and Western cultures, Huang said.

“The ancient Maritime Silk Road was not only a route of trade, but also a route of cultural exchange,” Huang said.

Nanhai No 1 is estimated to contain more than 80,000 valuable cultural artifacts, including ceramics, porcelain, gold rings, and silver and bronze coins.

Sun Jian said more than 700 artifacts have so far been uncovered.

The excavation is expected to be completed in 2017, he added.

Discovered in 1987 off the coast near Yangjiang, Nanhai No 1 dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and is recognized as one of the oldest and largest merchant boats to have sunk in Chinese waters.

As early as 2,000 years ago, Chinese traders began taking ceramics, textiles and other commodities to foreign countries along the trading route. They left from ports in today’s Guangdong and Fujian provinces and sailed to countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.

“From the artifacts already recovered, archaeologists have concluded that businessmen from Arabian countries and India might have lived on the ship,” Sun said.