Three years ago, a group of local fishermen were diving off the side of their boat near Nan’ao island chain, a cluster of small islands which lie close to the south China coast, roughly two-thirds of the way between Hong Kong and Xiamen.
On the sea-floor, one of the fishermen found ten porcelain plates, which he promptly scooped up, stashing a few of them away and taking the others to the market to sell.
An informant promptly ratted on him and some officials from the Guangdong Cultural Relic Research Institute came to have a word about where the porcelain came from.
When the fisherman took the researchers to the site, they discovered the wreck of a 65-foot-long ship, probably a merchant vessel, which may have been carrying tens of thousands of pieces of blue-and-white porcelain to foreign markets.
More importantly, the researchers dated the ship to the late Ming dynasty, probably during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1573 to 1620).
The wreck is, in fact, the first late Ming dynasty ship ever found. “We have found lots of wrecks from the Song and Yuan dynasties, but this is the first ship we have found from the late Ming era. There’s just nothing to compare it with,” said Cui Yong, the head archaeologist on the salvage operation.
“We have been trying to raise it last year and again early this year, but the weather has been terrible,” he added.
The ship was found too close to the Chinese shore to draw any conclusions about its final destination, but Mr Cui reckons it may have been heading in a south westerly direction “possibly to the Philippines”.
He said: “There’s a high chance it hit a rock or a hidden reef, since there are quite a few in the area”.