China kept this 800-year-old shipwreck a secret for decades

An intact 12th-century junk was found on the bottom of the South China Sea in 1987. It took 20 years just to develop an excavation plan that preserved this priceless time capsule.

By Kexin Zhong
Published 15 Jun 2022, 10:56 BST
The wreck
The wreck of the Nanhai No. 1 is illustrated on the seabed before salvage.
Photograph by Maritime Silk Road Museum Guangdong

The British firm Maritime Exploration was looking for a Dutch East India Company shipwreck in the South China Sea in 1987 when it came across something more elusive: an intact merchant vessel from the 1100s. With the Chinese company Guangzhou Salvage, the team was trying to locate a ship belonging to the trading company that had sunk in the 1700s. Instead, in the waters between Hong Kong and Hailing Island in Guangdong Province, they found a 100-foot-long junk dated to the Southern Song period of the 12th century.

(The Endurance: How Shackleton's legendary ship was found.)

In 1125 the Song dynasty lost control of northern China. The emperor retreated south and soon set up a new capital at Lin’an (today Hangzhou). Known as the Southern Song, this state survived and even flourished. 

The enemy forces to their north blocked the Southern Song from the overland Silk Trade routes that connected with Central Asia and Europe. This artery had formed the basis of the Song’s economy for centuries, but their new southern location gave them access to extensive sea lanes that ran through the South China Sea. The Southern Song turned to shipbuilding and pursued their fortunes on the water.

In the late 12th century, a Song merchant ship laden with goods set out for a voyage but sank soon after leaving port. Eight centuries later, its discovery provides a fascinating snapshot into the moment when China set its sights on becoming a great naval power.

Raising the wreck

Divers could tell the sunken ship must have been in the early stages of its voyage because a huge cargo was still packed in the hold. It was decided to name the wreck the Nanhai No. 1 because it was the first such ship to be discovered in the Nanhai, the Chinese name for the South China Sea.

(Tensions and poaching threatened habitats in the South China Sea.)

A six-foot-thick layer of silt had preserved its wooden hull and cargo, including porcelain, Song-era coins, and bars of silver. The team could tell there were a lot more goods aboard the ship, but it would be nearly impossible to survey the wreck in the silty waters. A lack of investment and suitable technology meant the Nanhai No. 1 remained on the seafloor for two decades. The site was monitored by the Chinese Navy, who kept local fishermen away with misinformation of live World War II–era bombs in the area.

(Shipwreck of an British royal 'party boat' revealed.)

A plan to raise the Nanhai No. 1 was developed in 2002; it was put into action five years later. Open at the bottom, a 3,000-ton custom-made steel cage was lowered over the wreckage site. Sensors had been placed along the seafloor so that the box could be carefully guided into place without damaging any of the centuries-old material below.

Heavy concrete blocks were then placed on the top of the box to push its sides down into the silt and below the bottom of the wreck. Then divers threaded strong beams through holes in the sides of the box, creating a bottom to the cage. After the concrete blocks were removed, the massive steel cage—with the Nanhai No. 1 and the surrounding sediment now contained inside—was slowly raised to the surface.

In December 2007 the Nanhai No. 1 and its precious contents (weighing a total of 15,600 tons) were transferred to the Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong on Hailing Island, which had been built specifically to house the wreck. There, the Nanhai No. 1 was placed in a custom-made saltwater tank. Much of the cargo has not been removed from the junk’s hold. To prevent deterioration, silt and water cover the craft and its contents, and the tank is maintained at the same temperature of the waters in which the wreck was discovered. In these carefully monitored conditions, archaeologists continue to study the wreck.

The roads of the sea

Over the years, archaeologists have recovered tens of thousands of objects from the Nanhai No. 1, including 100 gold artefacts and thousands of coins. Most of the 60,000 to 80,000 objects on the Nanhai No. 1, however, are ceramics from the Southern Song.

The sea lanes the Southern Song relied on are known by historians as the Maritime Silk Road. Emerging around the same time as the rise of Rome in the West, the Maritime Silk Road linked Indonesia and the Spice Islands, India, the Arab world, and the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean.

It is likely that the Nanhai No. 1 set sail from the port of Guangzhou (also known as Canton) on the Pearl Delta, which, along with Quanzhou and Xiamen, was one of southern China’s key ports.

To historians, the Nanhai No. 1 reveals the kinds of objects carried by 12th-century fleets. Its huge stock of ceramics included black Jian ware, closely associated with the Song period, as well as green Longquan celadon, noted for its carved lotus and other flower motifs. Celadon items have been found across Southeast Asia, suggesting that this is where the Nanhai No. 1 was headed.

Archaeological finds have shown that a Chinese stoneware with brown glaze was also in demand in Southeast Asia. Known as Cizao ware, this is also found in the hold. Not all of the Nanhai No. 1 goods, however, are considered luxury items. Its white porcelain from Fujian was mass-produced and sold at lower prices.

The cargo also contained around 10,000 coins. Many bear symbols linked to the reign of Xiao Zong, the 11th Song emperor who ruled from the 1160s to the late 1180s and was a strong proponent of ocean trade.

A discovery made in 2018 helped fix the timing of the voyage. A ceramic jar among the cargo goods was found to bear a black-ink inscription on its underside that links its manufacture to the year 1183, placing the trip in or after the early 1180s.

The Nanhai No. 1, with much of its original cargo in situ, is displayed in a vast tank at the Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong on Hailing Island, China. The ship and its goods are kept partly immersed in sea water and silt to ensure its preservation.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Past and future

In parallel to its historical importance, the Nanhai No. 1 has been a means for China’s government to project the country’s venerable history as a naval and trading power. Its discovery in 1987 occurred just as the Cold War was ending—and as China was beginning to play a new role on the world stage. By the time of the Nanhai No. 1’s raising from the seabed in 2007, China’s global economic importance was beyond question.

The Belt and Road Initiative, a massive China-funded scheme launched in 2013 to invest in infrastructure in dozens of countries, is a conscious updating of both the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road. To many Chinese people, the Nanhai No. 1 reflects both the glories of China’s mercantile past as well as its ambitious projects for the future.

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