Treasure-laden Ming Shipwreck May Have Smuggled Arms

Archaeologists are uncovering troves of cultural artifacts from an ancient Chinese vessel still sitting at the bottom of the sea. The sunken merchant vessel is located off the coast of China, near the city of Shantou. Called Nanao One, the ship is dated to be from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Archaeologists have been carrying out a salvage operation since September, but it wasn’t until this Monday that they were able to enter the cabin of the ship, and extract the relics inside. Here are some of the first pictures of the artefacts discovered.

In total, more than 1,000 artifacts have been retrieved from the vessel since it was discovered. The items include different kinds of porcelain, such as dishes, cups, bowls and vases, as well as copper plates, canons and guns.

Ten Thousand More Arefacts Could Still be Found

But archaeologists believe there could be as many as 10,000 cultural relics still being stored inside the ship, but difficult weather conditions have slowed down the salvage operation. Sun Jian, director of the salvage team from the National Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Center said to the local media, We’ll try to remove all the relics from the sunken vessel within 90 days.

Archaeologists first became aware of the vessel three years ago when local fishermen caught pieces of porcelain while fishing off the coast. The discovered artifacts were later determined to be from the Ming Dynasty era.

The ship itself has been measured to be at least 25 meters long and 7 meters wide. In spite of lying beneath the sea for hundreds of years, the ship is still intact, with only the upper floors of the vessel rotting.

Relic of the Marine Silk Road

By studying the ship and its contents, archaeologists expect to learn more about the marine silk road, which was a series of maritime trade routes China used to reach Europe and Africa, linking both East and West.

Historical records say these maritime trade routes were in use since the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) – the same as the land Silk Road was in operation. The Chinese ships would set sail for India, where then their goods would be shipped to Rome and Egypt.

But only in recent years has actual evidence of these trade routes been found with the discovery of shipwrecks in the South China Sea. Archaeologists discovered the sunken ship Nanhai One, from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), in 1987. Experts speculate there could be hundreds more ships still at the bottom of the sea yet to be found.

As for Nan’ao One, archaeologists have been surprised to find such a ship dating to the late Ming Dynasty. During this era, China had at times issued strict rules banning maritime trade, possibly in an attempt to stop piracy.

But the Nan’ao One ship shows that some Chinese merchants were ignoring the ban, and even shipping copper, a good the Ming Dynasty government had prohibitied from being traded. Archaeologists are already theorizing that the vessel may have been used to secretly smuggle arms. Guns and canons have been found in the wreckage. But archaeologists note that a vessel carrying such arms would have been common for this era.