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China renews salvage of 800-year-old ship
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Chinese archaeologists are hoping to recover the wreckage of an ancient merchant ship loaded with exquisite porcelain before the end of the year, said the Ministry of Communications.

The vessel, which dates back more than 800 years, was supposed to have been raised from the seabed off south China in October, but strong gales and technical glitches have stalled the operation.

The earliest possible timetable disclosed by Vice Minister of Communications Huang Xianyao is late December. The state-run China Central Television will carry a live broadcast of the salvage, he said.

Pu Shida, an official with of the ministry's Salvage Bureau, told Xinhua that unexpected difficulties had occurred during operations in the South China Sea.

Archaeologists launched an unprecedented operation in early May to raise the Nanhai No. 1, as they have named the vessel, and the surrounding silt in a huge steel basket.

Attempts to lower the rectangular basket into the water to cover the boat were hampered by a hard mud layer at about 10.5 meters beneath the seabed. It had taken way much longer than expected to put in place 36 specially designed steel beams, Pu explained.

The beams, each stretching 15 meters and weighing more than five tons, are to be put under the boat, forming the bottom of a basket.

When the first steel beam was placed on Sept. 4, Wang Renyi, deputy commander-in-chief of the operation with Guangzhou Salvage Bureau, optimistically predicted, "If the other 35 beams can be set into place at a pace of one each day, the ship will be hoisted out of water in mid-October."

Another factor postponing the salvage, Pu noted, was the bad weather during summer and autumn. Only when the wind speed dropped below 8.9 meters per second could salvage operations be carried out. "Unfortunately, we have experienced typhoons Pabuk, Sepat and Wutip over the past few months," he said.

A source with the Salvage Bureau maintained that setbacks were inevitable as such an operation had never before been conducted. "We have to gather experience during the operation," he said.

Huang said that unlike the traditional practice of excavating relics on sunken ships first and then salvaging the vessels, no relic excavation would be made until the boat was hoisted out of water.

The wreck, located 20 nautical miles south of Dongping port of Yangjiang City and more than 20 meters below the surface, was found accidentally in 1987 by Guangzhou Salvage Bureau and a British underwater salvage company.

At about 30 meters long, it is the largest Song Dynasty (960-1279) cargo vessel ever discovered. Archaeologists estimate that there are probably 60,000 to 80,000 relics on the sunken ship.

It is believed that a successful salvage will offer important material evidence for the study of China's history in seafaring, ship-building and ceramics making.

As early as 2,000 years ago, ancient Chinese traders began to ship chinaware, silk, textiles and other commodities to foreign countries along a trading route starting from ports at today's Guangdong and Fujian provinces to countries in southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.

The maritime trading route, together with the ancient Silk Road running through the hinterland of Asia and Europe, were the bridges connecting the ancient civilization to the rest of the world in the east and west.

Workers have cleared away 25 tons of silt around the sunken ship and have brought out of the seawater 390 items. They include green glazed porcelain plates, tin pots and shadowy blue porcelain objects.

Chinese archaeologists have so far found more than 10 sites of ancient wrecks along the maritime route.
(Xinhua News Agency December 13, 2007)

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