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500-year-old Ming shipwrecks yield treasures


Cargo from No 1 shipwreck (NCHA)
Cargo from No 1 shipwreck (NCHA)

The excavation of two Ming Dynasty shipwrecks has shed light on trade activities along the ancient Maritime Silk Road, according to China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA).

The well-preserved wrecks lie about 150m deep, 150km south-east of Sanya City in China's island province of Hainan, its southernmost point. They are thought to date back to around 1500 AD, the midway period of the dynasty that flourished from 1368 to 1644. 

The ships were discovered in October 2022 near the north-west continental slope of the South China Sea. More than 900 artefacts have been excavated over the past two years by a team including underwater archaeologists from Chinese research institutes and a local museum.

Ceramics from Chinese shipwreck
Examples of ceramics from the Chinese shipwrecks (NCHA)

A total of 890 pieces of Ming porcelain and pottery made for export as well as copper coins have now been excavated from No 1 shipwreck. The 38 items from No 2 wreck included, alongside porcelain and pottery, logs imported from abroad, giant turban shells and deer antlers. Both vessels were thought to have been privately owned traders.

No 1 ship is thought likely to have been sailing from ports in the provinces of Guangdong or Fujian to the trade hub of Malacca in Malaysia, while No. 2 might have picked up its timber cargo at Malacca to bring back to Guangdong or Fujian – all part of the ancient Maritime Silk Road trade between China and other parts of the world.

The archaeological surveys have been carried out using 3D laser scanners, high-definition cameras and submersible mud-pumping and blowing devices. Many of the artefacts found to date are eventually set to be put on display on Hainan.

Also read: How to correctly excavate a shipwreck, Pioneering shipwreck treasure-hunters celebrated at Cornish museum, Rooswijk wreck dives reveal stories of Europe’s global trading history

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