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Three archaeologists check porcelain wares at the Huaguangjiao No 1 site near Xisha in the South China Sea in 2007. The shipwreck is believed to date to the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Salvage team dives into history
By Zhang Zixuan
Published: May 17 2011 9:42
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At a depth of 27 meters, archaeological diver Ruan Youhao found the baseline he laid along a shipwreck last July. He took a tool from his diving partner to mark several cabins in the beam of an underwater flashlight.

A few minutes later, Ruan looked at his submersion watch and gave a "go up" sign to his partner. The two divers had hit their limit for non-decompression diving. The divers finished their 25-minute dive at 9:35 am on April 27.

It was the first day of the fourth excavation of Nan'ao No 1, a sunken merchant vessel of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that was found in 2007 in the South China Sea near Nan'ao Island, Guangdong province, after local fisherman netted porcelain ware.

By the time the project ends, probably in mid-July, the underwater archaeology team and the Guangzhou Salvage Bureau are expected to confirm the size of the shipwreck and the salvage of its cultural relics.

"The shipwreck looks exactly the same as last year, with no trace of illegal salvage," Ruan said, taking off his mask and wiping away the sweat that had formed quickly under his 5-millimeter-thick diving suit and from the weight of two 40-kg oxygen tanks on his back.

With China's 3 million square kilometers of territorial seas, 18,000 km of coastline and countless lakes and rivers, its richest cultural heritage may lie in the deep, like exhibits in a giant underwater museum.

A rude awakening

"Although facing many difficulties, China's underwater archaeology and cultural heritage protection has made significant progress throughout the last two decades," said Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

In May 1984, British marine explorer Michael Hatcher discovered the wreck of the Dutch ship Geldermalsen, which sank in the South China Sea in 1751, and removed 150,000 Chinese porcelain artifacts. Those relics were sold for $20 million at a Christie's auction in Amsterdam in 1986.

The sale forcibly wakened China's protection of underwater cultural heritage. The country's first underwater archaeology organization, the Underwater Archaeology Research Center, was founded at the end of 1987 in the National Museum of Chinese History, now the National Museum of China.

Since 1989 the center has trained more than 90 underwater archaeology divers in five groups. About half are still active underwater, gathering to dive on special projects when needed and working as archaeologists the rest of their time, mostly for museums and cultural relics bureaus of coastal provinces. Quite a few of the other half are in managerial positions related to underwater cultural heritage protection.

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