Porcelain ware salvaged from Nan'ao No 1, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) ship discovered at the bottom of the South China Sea, undergoes a desalination process at Fuzhou Museum April 23. Zhang Zixuan / China Daily
Archaeologists discover treasure horde of cultural relics beneath the waves, reports Zhang Zixuan in Guangdong.
At a depth of 27 meters, archaeological diver Ruan Youhao found the baseline he laid along a shipwreck last July. He took a tool from his diving partner to mark several cabins in the beam of an underwater flashlight.
A few minutes later, Ruan looked at his submersion watch and gave a "go up" sign to his partner. The two divers had hit their limit for non-decompression diving. The divers finished their 25-minute dive at 9:35 am on April 27.
It was the first day of the fourth excavation of Nan'ao No 1, a sunken merchant vessel of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that was found in 2007 in the South China Sea near Nan'ao Island, Guangdong province, after local fisherman netted porcelain ware.
By the time the project ends, probably in mid-July, the underwater archaeology team and the Guangzhou Salvage Bureau are expected to confirm the size of the shipwreck and the salvage of its cultural relics.
"The shipwreck looks exactly the same as last year, with no trace of illegal salvage," Ruan said, taking off his mask and wiping away the sweat that had formed quickly under his 5-millimeter-thick diving suit and from the weight of two 40-kg oxygen tanks on his back.
With China's 3 million square kilometers of territorial seas, 18,000 km of coastline and countless lakes and rivers, its richest cultural heritage may lie in the deep, like exhibits in a giant underwater museum.
A rude awakening
"Although facing many difficulties, China's underwater archaeology and cultural heritage protection has made significant progress throughout the last two decades," said Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
In May 1984, British marine explorer Michael Hatcher discovered the wreck of the Dutch ship Geldermalsen, which sank in the South China Sea in 1751, and removed 150,000 Chinese porcelain artifacts. Those relics were sold for $20 million at a Christie's auction in Amsterdam in 1986.
The sale forcibly wakened China's protection of underwater cultural heritage. The country's first underwater archaeology organization, the Underwater Archaeology Research Center, was founded at the end of 1987 in the National Museum of Chinese History, now the National Museum of China.
Since 1989 the center has trained more than 90 underwater archaeology divers in five groups. About half are still active underwater, gathering to dive on special projects when needed and working as archaeologists the rest of their time, mostly for museums and cultural relics bureaus of coastal provinces. Quite a few of the other half are in managerial positions related to underwater cultural heritage protection.
Ruan, for example, was in the third batch of archaeology divers, trained in 2004. He is 37, has 10 types of diving certificates and has participated in all underwater archaeology projects off southeastern China. He also is director of the Zhangzhou Administration Office of Cultural Relics.
Visitors can watch
On Dec 22, 2007, what is thought to be the oldest and largest shipwreck ever found in China was hauled - with its surrounding silt and water - from the South China Sea bed where it had rested for more than 800 years. The 5,000-ton Nanhai No 1, dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), had been found in 1987 and was loaded with 60,000 to 80,000 relics.
Six days after it was lifted from the sea, it was moved to the specially built Crystal Palace at Guangdong Marine Silk Road Museum in Yangjiang, Guangdong province. Now the ship lies in a glass pool with temperature and pressure controls to replicate its sea environment. Visitors can watch the excavation, which is expected to last about 10 years.
"The integral salvage, relocation, preservation and on-site excavation display of Nanhai No 1 is an original and unique creation," said Shan, the cultural heritage administrator. All of this will provide precious experience for future underwater archaeologists, he said.
Cultural heritage protection on land gets more attention, which does not sit well with Liu Shuguang, dean of the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage and director of the National Conservation Center for Underwater Cultural Heritage.
"Two scoops will be sufficient for land archaeology sometimes," Liu said, "but underwater archaeology requires huge amounts of money and the most advanced technology."
An underwater archaeology project can cost up to tens of millions, he said. Just renting the workboat for the excavation of Nan'ao No 1 costs 80,000 yuan ($12,310) every day. "Underwater excavation is significantly affected by water temperature and visibility, and it's very dangerous," Liu said.
He also said the law on underwater cultural heritage protection is less comprehensive than that for land. For example, many large-scale underwater construction projects are launched without prior review for archaeology concerns.
The third national cultural heritage census, in 2009, determined about 70 ancient shipwrecks lie in China's ocean territory, but the National Conservation Center for Underwater Cultural Heritage estimates there are 2,000 or more in just the South China Sea.
In water vs out of it
The 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage considers in-situ preservation - in the water where it was found - to be "the first and preferred option before allowing or engaging in any activities directed at this heritage".
"Under normal circumstances, heritage is well preserved underwater owing to the low deterioration rate and lack of oxygen, and it is therefore not per se in danger," according to the convention.
"Once out of the water, the heritage will significantly lose its cultural and historical context and value," Liu said.
Damage can occur as well.
Porcelain items predominate among the artifacts found underwater and hundreds of years' immersion in seawater has made salt seep into the porcelain structure, said Zhang Huanxin, director of Fujian Museum's preservation department. Once it is exposed to air, the salt will dry and crystallize within the porcelain. The volume of the salt increases, cracking the porcelain into pieces.
"All the excavated underwater porcelain wares must be immersed again to desalt them as soon as they are taken out of the sea. But the complicated procedure may last for years," Zhang said.
China does have successful examples of in-situ preservation. In 2009, China constructed its first underwater museum, the Baiheliang Underwater Museum. However, there was no choice for underwater cultural heritage sites such as Nanhai No 1 and Nan'ao No 1. They had to be rescue-excavated to keep them from being destroyed by relic thieves.
Yang Yangmei, 39, a fisherman from Qisha village, Zhangzhou, Fujian province, has been fishing for more than 25 years and he "caught" three blue-and-white porcelain bowls and a jar in his nets in September 2010. He occasionally sees illegal salvage ships now, but said that about four years ago the sightings were frequent. "Diving thieves always act at night, even in winter."
Since 2005 the public security departments of Fujian province have cracked 46 cases of illegal salvage and sale of underwater relics involving 50 criminal ships, 516 suspects and 7,372 porcelain wares.
"There were hundreds of people fishing for relics in the worst case," said Zhong Zhenyi, deputy commander of the Border Control Department of Fujian Public Security.
To better protect underwater cultural heritage sites, public security departments of coastal areas used radar, video monitors and other high-tech equipment. They also spot-check the ships that apply to enter or leave ports.
Thieves are improving their technology, too. They have created a 70-horsepower motorboat that is resistant to bullets and difficult to catch. They are also armed with GPS devices. When the police come close, they drop relics they have taken back into the sea, and use GPS to retrieve them later.
"We really feel helpless sometimes when the thieves escape right in front of us, whistling," Zhong said.
In 2007 the Yun'ao Border Control Police Station of Guangdong province volunteered to monitor Nan'ao No 1 from the day the shipwreck was found. For more than 1,400 days, 16 police officers have taken turns watching the sea surface above it from an abandoned building onshore about 3.7 km away.
"Only we know the fear at night and the loneliness when the festivals come," said Zhu Zhixiong, commander of the police station.
"No one laid a finger on the shipwreck after the last excavation, which is oddly remarkable among China's underwater shipwrecks," said Cui Yong, leader of the Nan'ao No 1 underwater archaeology team.
China has underwater cultural heritage protection bases in Ningbo, Qingdao and Wuhan and plans for new bases in Shanghai and Xiamen. A 580-ton professional underwater archaeology ship, the first in China, is being designed, and is estimated to go into service in 2015.
In June, the National Conservation Center for Underwater Cultural Heritage will supersede the Underwater Archaeology Research Center in hosting a sixth session of diver training. About 30 archaeology workers selected from throughout the country will train for three months at Ningbo, Xiamen and Guangzhou. The budget entry for their tailor-made diving suits is 760,000 yuan.
For the first time, the curriculum will include "law and the sense of protection to make the session more full-scale," said Liu, the center's director.
Jin Tao, 28, who works at the Ningbo Conservation Center for Underwater Cultural Heritage, Zhejiang province, trained in 2009 with the fifth batch of divers. He participated in the excavation of Nan'ao No 1 in 2010 and spent more than 100 days on the workboat.
"Most trainees now hold a master's degree or above, and they have a higher level of theoretical knowledge than those in the first few batches," Jin said. He holds a master's in archaeology from Peking University.
In November 2010 the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the State Oceanic Administration agreed to strategic cooperation in underwater cultural heritage protection, integrating resources in underwater archaeology, underwater cultural heritage management and six other areas. Cooperation with the Public Security, Foreign Affairs and Finance ministries, the China Meteorological Administration and the navy is also under way.
"China's underwater archaeology has shifted to comprehensive underwater cultural heritage protection, and it has been expanded from coastal areas to farther reaches of the seas and inland waters," said Shan, the director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
"As the travel industry and economic construction disturb the still water more often, underwater cultural heritage protection is no longer a matter of a single department, but a public obligation of everybody."
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