In 1987 divers stumbled across something surprising; an 800-year-old Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279 CE) shipwreck lying in the mouth of the Pearl River, at the very beginning of the Maritime Silk Route. Fully laden with a treasure trove of precious cargo, the discovery sent shockwaves around the world.
The wreck was named Nanhai One because it was the first ancient shipwreck to be discovered in China’s South Sea, or 南海 Nán hǎi in Chinese. More than five hundred years older than Swedish Royal ship Vasa, and with more than 120,000 priceless gold, jade, bronze, and ceramic objects hidden within its hull, Nanhai One was the discovery of a lifetime. It also signalled the start of maritime archaeology here in China.
What was this ship? Why was it carrying so many objects, who were they for, and how were similar ceramics found in faraway places, such as Sri Lanka, Oman and Kenya? Could Nanhai One be the key to revealing secrets of the Maritime Silk Route forgotten for almost a thousand years?
In the two decades following its discovery, between 1987 and 2007, China’s Underwater Archaeology Unit undertook nine separate investigations of the wreck. These allowed the archaeologists to determine the nature, extent and age of the remains, the ship layout, its significance and state of preservation. In 2002, a test excavation was conducted, and amazingly, over 4,000 artefacts were discovered in one compartment alone.
Given the richness of the find, the wreck’s research potential, and the challenges in securing the cargo against treasure hunters, a decision was taken to recover the ship intact, and baulk excavate it onshore.
In 2007, thanks to an incredible feat of subsea engineering, the extant remains were recovered intact and moved into a tank in the Guangdong’s Maritime Silk Road Museum, where excavation is ongoing. I’ve been to see the ship a few times now, and it never ceases to illuminate, inform and inspire!
If you get the chance to visit China post-pandemic, I would strongly encourage you to go there. The Maritime Silk Road Museum is magnificent and its located on the spectacular Ten Mile Silver Beach at Hailing Island, a three-hour drive from Guangzhou. The museum is open from 09:00 – 17:00 daily. And if you come in summer, don’t forget your swimmers!
Image © Department of Transport, China.