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A Milestone in China's Archaeology: Discovery of Ancient Ceramics off Xisha Islands


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Another 10 Relics Sites Discovered off Xisha Islands

On May 8, a Chinese archeology team finished its 55-day excavation work on an ancient shipwreck, namely Huaguangjiao No.1, off the Xisha islands in the South China Sea, with the recovery of more than 10,000 pieces of antique Chinese pottery and porcelain and the discovery of another 10 undersea relics sites. This is the first time that China has conducted undersea excavation work in the open seas.

Huaguangjiao No.1: The first ancient shipwreck recovered in China's open sea

"Huaguangjiao No. 1", meaning Huaguang Reef No.1, is located inside the swirling Huaguang Reef off the Xisha islands in the South China Sea. The sunken ship, which is believed to have been a merchant ship built in the Southern Song Dynasty, was discovered in 1996 and has suffered from being illegally excavated several times since 1997. In 1998, the China National Museum and cultural relics administrations in Hainan Province launched pilot excavations of Huaguangjiao No.1, recovering around 1,800 relic items.

Measuring 20 meters in length, 6 meters in width, 3-4 meters in the depth of its side, covering 180 square meters and with an estimated displacement of 60 tons and 11 cabins still intact along the bottom of the boat's wooden hull, Huaguangjiao No.1 lies 3 meters below the surface of the sea and is covered with corals, looking like a huge coral reef. With the exception of its upper sections, the vessel is relatively well-preserved. Considering that the shipwreck has been in the sea for about 800 years and it's difficult to consolidate its structure undersea, archeologists only collected samples of the vessel for further studies. It is reported that China has planned to salvage Huaguangjiao No.1 as early as this fall. Once hoisted out of water, this vessel could be an extremely valuable ancient sunken ship for antique research and display.

Huaguangjiao No.1 excavation: a milestone in China's undersea archaeology history

The excavation of Huaguangjiao No.1 was well-prepared and conducted with precision, marking it a significant milestone in China's undersea archaeology history.

With the main body of the shipwreck being the center, archaeologists circumscribed an excavation area of 370 square meters, which was divided into 50 sub-areas of 4 square meters each. All the relic items were numbered according to the sub-area they came from, recorded, and photographed. The excavation operation was mainly carried out by manpower and the facilities were used for clearing away tons of silt. After the 55-day excavation, the majority of relic items on the shipwreck were salvaged and the excavation site is now under preservation.

The total excavation time is about 300,000 minutes. Relic items found at the site include green glazed porcelain plates, shadowy blue porcelains and other rare exquisite antiques, which were manufactured in Fujian Province and Jingdezheng in Jiangxi Province.

Why submerged in Huaguang Reef

Since relics items yielding from Huaguangjiao No.1 were mostly made in Fujian Province, it is estimated that the sunken ship was an ancient merchant ship heading for Southeast Asia for Chinese porcelain trading, but unfortunately sank on the way.

Sailing on the waters near the Xisha islands has been dangerous and hazardous since the ancient times, as noted in a book written in the Song Dynasty.

Archeologists have found that the relic items are concentrated within an area of 38 square meters within the Huaguang Reef and only the lower part of the ship body is left undersea. If the ship was shattered by tides within the reef, it is impossible that the relic items didn't scatter all over the bottom of the reef, whose area is of hundreds of square meters. So, archeologists estimate that the vessel went down on the open sea and then the shipwreck was taken to Huaguang Reef by tides.

A pearl on the "Marine Silk Road"

Huaguangjiao No. 1 has important significance in the process of researching ancient China's Maritime Silk Road.

"Huaguangjiao No.1 and Nanhai No.1 which is currently being excavated off the coast of south China's Guangdong province, are two pearls along the ancient Maritime Silk Road," said Zhang Wei, director of The Undersea Archeology Center of China National Museum. "The two have equal significance,, but Huaguangjiao No.1 is located in the open seas, and is more difficult to excavate."