The 'Other' Silk Road: China peers into maritime past

A barge carrying the wreck of an 800-year-old sunken merchant ship - China Photos/Getty Images

By Anthony Kuhn - NPR

In China, it is hard to imagine just how much history lies right under your feet. The country has long been a goldmine for archaeologists.

Until recently, they have been confined to digging on land. But in recent years, China has grown into a powerhouse of nautical archaeology, combing its vast coastline for undersea shipwrecks, treasure, and traces of a trade route known as the "Maritime Silk Road," a less-known parallel to the fabled overland passage.

About 1,000 visitors a day flock to one of China's newest museums, in Guangdong province's Yangjiang city. It is called the Maritime Silk Road Museum, and it is on the beach, facing the South China Sea.

The museum houses one of the world's oldest known merchant ships, dating from the Southern Song Dynasty in the 13th century. It's been dubbed the South China Sea No. 1.

Museum guide Liu Jinxiu explains that Chinese and British explorers discovered the ship by accident in 1987 while looking for a sunken vessel belonging to the British East India Company.

"The explorers used a claw to fish out more than 200 pieces of fine Chinese porcelain," she says. "From this, they deduced that the ship was Chinese, and not British, and the two sides ended their cooperation."

At the time, China lacked the means to salvage the ship. Archaeologist Zhang Wei of the National Museum of China remembers how he went about setting up the field of nautical archaeology for his country.


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