Two shipwrecks of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), one laden with thousands of intact porcelain objects and another with wooden logs, were found deep under the South China Sea. The wreckage was discovered in October last year on the northwestern continental slope of South China off the coast of Hainan Island at a depth of 1,500 meters (just under a mile).
After the wreck of Ship No. 1, the remains of the ship itself are mostly hidden by tens of thousands of porcelain items destined for the export trade. The porcelain is so dense that, in an area of 10,000 square meters (2.5 acres), there are six-foot-deep stacked and nested vessels. Archaeologists estimate that there are over 100,000 individual items. Analysis of several items suggests that they were created during the Zhentoku era (1506-1521).
Ship number 2 was carrying raw timber. The wooden logs were the same size and carefully stacked on top of each other. Initial analysis of the timber indicates that the ship was a Chinese importer bringing timber from abroad during the Meiji-Koji era (1488-1505). They were probably intended for use in shipbuilding.
This is the first time that a ship with an export cargo and one with an import cargo have been found in the same area. This indicates how well established and widely passable in both directions the sea routes along the Maritime Silk Road. Two adjacent wrecks provide researchers with a unique opportunity to study the two-way traffic in the South China Sea 500 years ago.
Underwater archeology in such deep waters poses huge logistical challenges. This month, the Hainan Provincial Cultural Heritage Administration launched a new shipwreck mapping investigation using a state-of-the-art manned submersible and a new permanent surveying and mapping base installed on the seabed at the site of the first shipwreck. This marks a significant step forward in deep sea archaeology.
The Chinese research vessel Tansuo 1, equipped with the Shenhai Yongshi submersible, or Deep Sea Warrior, took researchers underwater for research on Saturday. Chen Chuanxu, a scientist at the Institute of Deep Sea Science and Engineering, said another vessel, the Tansuo 2, equipped with the Fendouzhe or Striver submersible, will join the mission.
Advanced technological approaches, including soft robotics inspired by bionics and materials science, were used during the operation to salvage some relics from shipwrecks. New methods of scanning, photographing and monitoring were also used.
“Talking about real-time protection and monitoring of such a large underwater object at a depth of 1,500 meters, we have no precedent in the world,” Chen said, adding that researchers are currently trying to remotely monitor this object.
The investigation will take about a year. The first step will be a thorough survey of the sunken ships. The second will entail a scientific assessment of the conditions for the preservation of sunken ships. The third and final step will determine how best to protect the wrecks in the future.