I spoke of China’s Swimming Dragons; those ships which plied the Maritime Silk Route and, to a certain extent, still do.
Why dragons? I hear you ask.
In Chinese mythology, the dragon is a being with no parallel for its talent and excellence.
In traditional Chinese culture, the dragon symbolises leadership, ambition, success, and honour. It is nobility’s protector.
The most auspicious of China’s 12 zodiac signs, the dragon is deemed adventurous, authoritative, and relentless – traits Chinese seafarers are said to possess. Their ships, symbols of drive and determination and of their motherland’s perceived might and power.
Dragons are also a little elusive, much like many of the Maritime Silk Route shipwrecks I’ve been searching for over the years.
But, I digress…
On Friday, I talked about three main topics.
First, I revisited the term Maritime Silk Route and revealed its true meaning.
Second, I introduced some of China’s famous and not so famous ‘Silk Route’ shipwrecks.
Third, I contemplated what those shipwrecks can tell us about China’s maritime cultural exchange with other countries. I then wrapped up and handed the microphone back to FOMS Laura for question time.
So, what is the Maritime Silk Route?
For the purposes of my presentation, the Maritime Silk Route was – and remains – a series of loosely interconnected seaborne trade and exchange routes linking China to Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, Europe and East Africa.
The term was derived from German Geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen’s Die Seidenstrasse, the Silk Road. Von Richthofen coined the term to describe the extensive network of overland Silk Roads connecting China and the West.
Therefore, the Maritime Silk Route is a somewhat simplistic term used to describe a diverse, complex phenomenon, that spans space and time.
A phenomenon that commenced, at least in China’s perspective, in 111 BCE (Before Common Era) when Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty dispatched a group of envoys carrying gold and silk to Southeast Asia and India.
Skip forward almost 1,500 years to the Song Dynasty, when the Maritime Silk Route had emerged as an economic architecture that extended beyond mercantile trade to social interaction, political dependence, cultural domination and a shift in geopolitical power that contributed to the development of many of the world’s great civilisations.
It’s here, in 1127 CE (Common Era) that I introduced Nanhai One, the first historic shipwreck found in China’s East Sea, or Nanhai (Nánhǎi 南海).
For those of you who don’t know about Nanhai One, quite frankly, you should! Nanhai One is a spectacular Song Dynasty merchant ship that was discovered in c.1985 CE by Treasure Hunter, Mike Hatcher. Hatcher isn’t someone I like to mention in the context of maritime archaeology, however here his contribution must be acknowledged.
In 1987, after Hatcher recovered and sold the Geldermalsen cargo, and China prohibited his salvage of Nanhai One, China appointed its first maritime archaeologist, Zheng Wei. Wei established China’s first underwater archaeology team in 1988, and in 1989 he led China’s first official investigation of Nanhai One.
Only one piece of porcelain was recovered that year. However, after more than nine in situ excavations, in 2007, the ship’s remains were recovered intact and moved into the purpose-built Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong for ongoing excavation.
The wreck was resubmerged in a ship-sized tank. Once the top of its container was removed, the excavation recommenced underwater.
Subsequently, the water was lowered, and the excavation was undertaken in full view of museum visitors. This also allowed visitors to view the artefact cataloguing, cleaning, desalination and conservation, as it progressed in real-time.
Approximately 160,000 ceramics and about 20,000 other artefacts have now been recovered from the shipwreck. Yet, work on hull stabilisation, recording, and analysis is still ongoing.
However, Nanhai One isn’t the only Silk Road Shipwreck that’s been found.
Join me next week for Part 2 of my ‘Swimming Dragons: Silk Route Shipwrecks‘ special!