Diverse Treasure Hunting

On a sunny day in April 1996, Li Bin, a photographer of the State Underwater Archaeology Team, was carefully observing and searching beneath the water of the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea.

On an archaeological boat not far away from Li were team director Zhang Wei -- closely following Li through an underwater monitor -- and other members of the team waiting for Li's news and preparing for the salvage.

"At first, I spotted a stone lion and a statue of an ancient official -- its head damaged -- lying in the sea bed, with part of their bodies buried in a coral reef," Li recalled.

He pulled the cable tied to him, sending out the signal "found something" to his team on the surface.

In time, they found some cultural relics belonging to different historic periods in ancient China.

"We didn't make a large-scale salvage because we still don't know how to preserve the found relics on land," Zhang said. "However, we were very excited since it was the first time our team had successfully conducted underwater archaeological search in such a deep and distant region."

Established in 1987, Li's team was only able to carry out underwater archaeological investigations close to shore during the first few years.

"Today, our team members have passed the tests, and improved our diving ability and our willpower for rough, physical conditions," Zhang said. "Our team has grown up."

Belated Establishment

China's underwater archaeology started in the 1970s. The ancient cultural relics under the sea around the Xisha Islands were the target.

However, progress was slow during the chaotic "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

In 1985, an archaeology team, led by British explorer Michael Hatcher, made an important discovery in the South China Sea.

One year later, a large amount of pottery, porcelain and gold ingots made under the rule of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was auctioned in the Netherlands through public bidding.

Extremely upset by the incident, Chinese archaeologists started to establish an underwater archaeology team, according to Zhang.

In November 1987, the State Underwater Archaeology Team was formally established and remains the only national underwater archaeological search powerhouse in China.

Practice Makes Perfect

The team is made up of about 12 archaeologists, as well as photographers, none of whom had precious experience in underwater archaeology.

"We started from scratch," Zhang said. "Generally speaking, you must be physically strong to become a professional archaeologist working underwater.

"Fortunately, all of us are strong guys."

Zhang led his team to learn and practice through all possible means.

At first, they just made underwater archaeological searches in offshore regions, inviting foreign underwater archaeologists to join them.

The team carried out its first large-scale underwater search in 1989 by a shipwreck off the coast of Taishan County, in South China's Guangdong Province.

In "South Sea No. 1 Project," Zhang and his team invited experts from Japan's Underwater Archaeology Institute to join the search.

A great deal of porcelain, silver ingots, bronze coins and a silver belt were found in the shipwreck.

"The color and design of these porcelain utensils reveal they were produced in Jiangxi, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces in the Song Dynasty (960-1279)," Zhang said. However, judging from the script and decoration on the belt, the design is not Chinese, Zhang added.

The porcelain pieces are believed to be the belongings of the ship owner, who had visited countries in Southeast Asia or regions beyond.

"These items offered us a glance at the trade and cultural exchange at that time." Zhang said.

In 1990, the team made another underwater archaeological search in Dinghai Bay in East China's Fujian Province in collaboration with an Australian team.

"Through cooperation, our members have acquired more professional knowledge and experience, and we are able to explore distant and deep-water regions, just as we did in the South China Sea," Zhang said.

Ancient Trade and War

At present, the team is devoted to archaeological search on the ancient Marine Silk Road.

The trade history of China with foreign countries dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), overseas trade was prosperous. Countless Chinese porcelain ware and silk products were transported to other countries through the land Silk Road, starting from the imperial capital Chang'an (today's Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province) and the Marine Silk Road, starting from eastern harbors.

The Marine Silk Road included two routes. The southern one started from Fujian, Guangdong, Zhejiang provinces and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where most of the ships sailed to countries in Southeast Asia, India and the Arabian Peninsula.

The north route started from Liaoning Province leading to the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

"A great number of merchant ships sank on these routes due to man-made and natural reasons," Zhang said.

So far, Zhang and his teammates have made several underwater digs.

Zhang said they will independently make a second archaeological salvage at the site of South Sea No 1 Project this month.

Searching military shipwrecks is another important aspect of the team's work.

Zhang said lots of warships of the Song and Qing dynasties (960-1279 and 1644-1911) sunk off the shore of southeastern China, when large-scale marine battles took place.

In 2000, a warship was spotted near the coast of Dongshan County in Fujian Province. Researchers found steel cannons and bronze blunderbusses. Zhang speculated that the ship might have belonged to Zheng Chenggong (1624-62), a general of the Ming Dynasty who drove the Dutch out of Taiwan.

"We plan to salvage this ship starting in June," Zhang said. "Hopefully, we'll find more things which can tell more stories about military history and weapons manufacture."

Earliest Ship

Linking ancient Chinese culture with the sea has remained an obsession of the underwater archaeological team, according to Zhang.

In Northeast China's Liaoning Province, archaeologists have found cultural remains of the Longshan culture, a late Neolithic culture thriving some 4,000 years ago. Characterized by burnished black pottery, the culture was named after its discovery site--Longshan in East China's Shandong Province. Archaeologists also found relics from today's Liaoning Province.

"That means ancient inhabitants in these places communicated across Bohai Bay," Zhang said. "Therefore, it is possible to find shipwrecks dating back 4,000 years ago in the area -- maybe the oldest shipwrecks in the world."

However, after painstaking exploration, the archaeologists only found some ceramic fragments of that period in offshore water. Due to the shortage of funds and labor, the team has temporarily suspended its search.

Ever since the team's establishment, Zhang and his colleagues have had more ambitious plans than their actual work.

Zhang said China has far richer underwater archaeology resources than the 20-odd members can handle.

There are also lots of natural obstacles. At present, the visibility in the sea near China is deteriorating because of increasing water pollution.

"In 1991, the visibility in Bohai Bay was 0.5 meters," Zhang said. "However, in 1997, our divers could see nothing if they didn't use underwater lighting facilities."

The sand and sludge on the bottom of the sea and some dangerous marine life, such as sea urchins and coral reefs, also greatly trouble their investigations.

"Whatever the obstacles, underwater archaeology must carry on," Zhang concluded.

(China Daily March 4, 2002)

In This Series

Legal Side: Underwater Archaeology

Underwater Mystery Unravels

Ancient Buildings Found in Fuxian Lake

First Underwater Archaeological Studies on Ancient Building Relics

Underwater Archaeological Activities to Broadcast Live

Chinese "Pompeii" Brought to Light



Archaeological Discoveries

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