A research project which took place between 2004 and 2009 has revealed the discovery of over 30 archaeological shipwreck sites which are scattered along the shores of China.
The research project, called 908, was carried out by the State Oceanic Administration’s Department of science and technology and examined an incredible 676,000 square-kilometres of inland waters and territorial ocean waters.
Many of these wrecks will belong to ancient merchants who used used the waters to transport a huge variety of goods along the Maritime Silk Road, a famous sea route which dates back almost 2000 years and linked China to India, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and into the Mediterranean.
The variety of goods exported for trade consisted of silk, porcelain and tea, while imported merchandise included spices and cedar wood from Lebanon.
The route was first used in the Qin and Han Dynasties (25-220 AD), and increased in popularity from the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) to the Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD). Until the Tang Dynasty An shi Rebellions (755–762), this route was always viewed as a secondary alternative to the overland Silk Road, However in the latter half of the eighth century,with wars raging through the vast Western Regions, trade volumes along the Maritime Silk Road boomed just as its overland counterpart suffered a decline.
Technological advances in shipbuilding and navigation led to the opening of new sea-lanes to Southeast Asia, Malacca, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Guangzhou became the first great harbour in China around the time of the Tang and Song Dynasties, although it was later substituted by Quanzhou in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) as the most important trade port.
The governments of the Ming and Qing Dynasties however issued a ban on maritime trade, contributing to a massive decline in its use. As the Opium War broke out in 1840, the Silk Road on the sea disappeared completely.
Liu Wensuo, an archaeologist at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou said, ” [These] shipwrecks may yield clues about the Maritime Silk Road, which connected China to India, Africa and Europe.”
Sun Jian, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Culture Heritage, said: “There are plenty of underwater archaeological sites near southeast China’s coast and neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam.”
However these newly discovered wreck sites have encouraged many fishermen and looters to head to these waters to recover ancient treasures and police have been forced to intervene and launch a crackdown on the looters.
“One ancient shipwreck usually contains thousands of relics,” Sun explained. “[and this] opportunity for huge profits has enticed a growing number of people to dive for riches.”
In 2006 for example, police recovered 45 cases of smuggled antiquities consisting of 7,144 artefacts taken from sunken ships. An Official from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, Chai Xiaoming, said last week: “…we should protect [our] marine heritage by strengthening the legal position and creating stronger teams equipped to deal with this looting.”
Two Chinese government agencies have signed an agreement to protect the country’s underwater cultural heritage, a recent article in the China Daily reported .
Both the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) and the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) will work closely in the fields of underwater archaeology and management of underwater relics.
Past Horizons. 2010. "China’s Maritime Silk Road Revealed". Past Horizons: Adventures in Archaeology. Posted: December 21, 2010. Available online: http://www.pasthorizons.com/index.php/archives/12/2010/chinas-maritime-silk-road-revealed