In the depths of the South China Sea, a ground-breaking discovery has captured the attention of archaeologists and historians alike. Two ancient shipwrecks, dating back to the illustrious Ming dynasty, have emerged from the ocean floor, revealing a treasure trove of relics and insights into China’s rich maritime history. Found approximately at a depth of 1,500 meters (4,921 ft) on a continental slope, this discovery marks the first large-scale ancient shipwreck site ever discovered in the deep sea by China. They are also key evidence for Chinese overseas trade and cultural ties, particularly in the context of the Maritime Silk Route.
Revealed by the National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) in a press conference held in Sanya, these finds have been named the Northwest Continental Slope No.1 and No.2 Shipwrecks, reports Xinhua. The remarkable discoveries were initially made by a scientific research team from the Institute of Deep-sea Science and Engineering, affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“The well-preserved relics are of high historical, scientific, and artistic value,” said Yan Yalin, the director of the archaeology department of the National Cultural Heritage Administration. “It can be a world-class archaeological discovery in deep sea. The findings are key evidence of ancient Maritime Silk Road , and is a major breakthrough study for the history of Chinese overseas trade, navigation, and porcelain,” he added. Yalin is conducting the preliminary investigation on these finds.
No.1 Shipwreck, No.2 Shipwreck: Evidence of Porcelain and Other Cultural Relics
The No.1 shipwreck covers an expansive area of approximately 10,000 square meters, with an estimated 100,000 cultural relics, primarily porcelain artifacts, still sealed at the site. Much of the shipwreck remains buried under layers of sand, with some areas obscured by a layer of relics measuring around three meters in thickness.
Neatly fallen wooden logs found on No. 2 Shipwreck. ( China Daily )
The No.2 shipwreck, situated around 20 kilometers away, contains numerous meticulously arranged processed wooden logs, alongside a smaller collection of ceramics.
Based on the recovered porcelain artifacts, experts believe that the No.1 shipwreck is likely from the reign of Emperor Zhengde (1505-1521), while the No.2 shipwreck dates back to the era of Emperor Hongzhi (1488-1505) – both rulers from the Ming Dynasty . This discovery has the potential to be considered a world-class archaeological breakthrough in deep-sea exploration .
The majority of the discovered porcelain on the No.1 site are products of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and Longquan Kiln in present-day Zhejiang province, which were prominent centers for porcelain manufacturing and export in ancient China.
Among the porcelain artifacts unearthed, various types were identified, including blue-and-white porcelain, celadons, and ceramics with green glaze. The presence of processed wooden logs on the No.2 shipwreck suggests its role in the import trade, as historical Chinese documents record timber as an imported commodity during that period.
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Tang Wei, director of the National Centre for Archaeology, which is affiliated to the cultural heritage administration, said new discoveries provided key references for understanding changing historical trade routes across the South China Sea, reports China Daily .
“Discovery of inbound and outbound ancient ships in the same area demonstrated significance of this route,” Tang said. “It helped studies on reciprocal flow of Maritime Silk Road.”
On Saturday, the first detailed underwater investigation of the shipwreck sites officially commenced and is expected to continue until June. To ensure the preservation of the relics, the exact locations of the shipwrecks have not been disclosed. However, a metal marker or “permanent surveying base point” was set on the seabed near the No.1 shipwreck, serving as a benchmark for future research in the region.
The “permanent surveying base point” is set on the seabed near No. 1 Shipwreck. ( China Daily )
Porcelain Trade and the Maritime Silk Route in China
During the Maritime Silk Road era, porcelain trade played a significant role in the South China Sea region. Porcelain, particularly from regions such as Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and Longquan Kiln in present-day Zhejiang province, was highly sought after and became a major commodity in international trade.
Jingdezhen, known as the “Porcelain Capital” of China, was renowned for its production of fine ceramics. Its porcelain, characterized by exquisite craftsmanship and intricate designs, gained popularity not only within China but also among foreign traders and buyers along the Maritime Silk Road. The city’s strategic location near the Yangtze River and proximity to major trade routes facilitated the export of porcelain to various regions, including those connected to the South China Sea.
The South China Sea served as a vital maritime corridor for the transportation of porcelain and other goods during ancient times. Porcelain was transported from manufacturing centers, such as Jingdezhen, to port cities along the southern coast of China. From there, it was loaded onto ships that traversed the South China Sea to reach destinations across Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and beyond.
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The trade in porcelain along the South China Sea route was not limited to a single direction. While Chinese porcelain was exported to other countries, the region also served as an important gateway for the importation of foreign goods, including raw materials, luxury items, and exotic treasures. These goods would arrive at ports along the South China Sea and then be distributed throughout China, creating a vibrant network of trade and cultural exchange.
The porcelain trade along the Maritime Silk Road route contributed to the flourishing of commerce, diplomatic relations, and cultural interactions between China and other countries. It played a crucial role in shaping the economies and societies of the regions involved, as well as fostering cross-cultural influences and artistic exchanges.
As the ocean gives up its long-held secrets, these ancient shipwrecks offer a glimpse into China’s vibrant past, showcasing the enduring legacy of the Maritime Silk Route and the profound impact it had on global trade and cultural exchange.
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