Treasure hunters have swarmed to the South China Sea in great number in recent years, seeking to uncover the region's massive quantities of underwater relics. However, their actions have also endangered the region's cultural heritage, prompting authorities to take action.
China's Xisha Islands, also known as the Paracel Islands, occupy an area of 15,000 square km in the South China Sea. Speculators and local fishermen have been surveying the waters around the islands for treasure since 1996, when a local fisherman discovered an ancient shipwreck in the area.
Many of the hunters use crude means to retrieve underwater relics, lacking both proper equipment and government approval. Destructive looting has done irreversible damage to the shipwrecks of the Xisha Islands.
Lying on the route of the ancient maritime Silk Road, the waters around the Xisha Islands were and still are heavily traveled shipping lanes, with ships transporting goods between China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, the waters around the islands are also known for their poor navigability, as they are surrounded by coral reefs. Historical records show that a number of ships struck hidden reefs and sank near the islands, taking their treasures with them to the ocean floor.
Official archaeological surveys show that there are at least 122 wrecked ships on the bottom of the South China Sea. Many of them date back to the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1276) dynasties, when trade with foreign countries was thriving.
"According to studies of previously salvaged ships, most of the sunken ships departed from China's costal regions, bound for overseas countries," said Wang Yiping, director-general of the Hainan Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage.
"Previously, official maritime archaeological surveys were largely limited to coastal waters due to a lack of technology and funds. However, archaeological research and salvages of several wreckages have helped to fill in knowledge gaps regarding Chinese and foreign interaction, production, consumption and trade relations centuries ago," Wang added.
The valuable artifacts discovered in the ancient ships, including porcelain, gold and bronzeware, have helped to shed new light on commerce and shipbuilding as they were practiced centuries ago. They are the "missing links" on the Silk Road trade route that linked ancient China with the Western world, Wang said.
Looting destroys the archaeological and anthropological context in which the relics exist, preventing people from fully appreciating the historic significance of the region, Wang said.