CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 1, March 2005


China Maritime Silk Road Museum | China Heritage Quarterly


In December 2004 work began on the construction of the China Maritime Silk Road Museum (Haishang Sichouzhilu Bowuguan). Located on a beach on Hailing Island adjacent to Yangjiang city in Guangdong province, the future museum will overlook the ancient waterways that cross this area of the Pearl River delta. It is estimated that construction will cost more than USD20 million. The large museum is designed to house about 300,000 objects, and, hopefully, an entire Song dynasty wreck – dubbed Nanhai 1 – still in the waters off the island, when its excavation and raising to the surface are completed in 2007.

Nanhai 1 is a wooden vessel in good condition even though it sank more than 1,000 years ago. Measuring 24.58 m in length and 9.8 m in width, the wreck, hidden about 30 metres offshore, was discovered by accident in 1987 by a British company salvaging another sunken vessel jointly with Chinese partners in the sea between Dongtai and Yangjiang. Exploratory dives and surveys have been conducted and the vessel is estimated to contain between 60,000 and 80,000 valuable items, mostly export porcelain produced at kilns along the southern Chinese littoral.

More than 1,000 ancient sunken vessels are estimated to be hidden under the waters in and around Guangdong, through which some of the ancient and medieval world's busiest sea lanes passed. There were about 50 regular international trade routes through the South China Sea prior to the implementation of a ban on maritime trade in the late Ming and early Qing. Ships proceeding from China to the Indian Ocean and west to the Middle East, eastern Africa and Europe had to cross the South China Sea, where many ships foundered on submerged reefs.

Underwater archaeology is a latecomer in China with the first unit, the Underwater Archaeological Centre at the National History Museum of China only established in 1990 with the assistance of Australian specialists. China has been keen to develop underwater archaeology, acknowledging that China was an ancient maritime power. In March 2004 China Daily reported that China is preparing to join a United Nations convention on underwater cultural heritage protection to preserve hidden treasures that may be damaged by commercial ocean salvage. Archaeologists are revising the nation's current laws and rules on underwater salvage to bring them into line with the convention as a first step towards eventually joining it, Zhang Wei, head of the Underwater Archaeological Centre, told the newspaper. The convention, passed in November 2001 and designed to thwart treasure hunters often uninterested in the archaeological value of ancient wrecks and underwater sites, has very few members and is still largely ineffective. The International Council on Monuments and Sites has documented how commercial salvage operations over the past 50 years have damaged countless underwater sites because treasure hunters have focused only on retrieving objects that will fetch a good price. Unlike the archaeologist, the treasure hunter feels no obligation to document a site and often deliberately destroys commercially inferior salvaged items, in order to raise the prices of better pieces. Of particular concern is the practice of some fishermen who salvage antiquities from shipwrecks using the indelicate technique of dynamiting the ocean floor and collecting what remains intact, as has happened at underwater heritage sites in the South China Sea and along the Chinese coast, especially at Changdao off the Shandong peninsula. "At antiquities markets in major Chinese cities we can often see antiques with shells clinging to their surface. They have been taken from shipwrecks," Zhang Wei said. The UN convention seeks to make commercial salvage from ancient sunken boats at underwater sites illegal, although at best it can only draw attention of the public and member countries to protecting the world's underwater cultural heritage. China itself enacted a regulation on underwater archaeology in 1989, but the regulation is not consistent with the convention on a number of points, including the issue of the ownership of salvaged items.

There is much treasure to be salvaged from under the seas off southern China and beyond, and China is anxious to acquire Chinese export porcelain salvaged from the waters of Southeast Asia. One of the most spectacular recent finds was the cargo of the Batu Hitam, the name given to the wreck of a 9th century dhow off the Indonesian island of Belitung lying between Borneo and Sumatra. The marine archaeologist Michael Flecker is quoted by Cyber Diver News Network as saying: "We can assume the ship was manned by Arabs and Indians who had intended to sail back from Yangzhou to one of the caliphates of the Arab world when they were wrecked in a storm off Belitung". Recovered in 1998-9 by German explorer Tilman Walterfang from the wreck were 67,000 pieces of Tang dynasty porcelain, including blue-and-white (qinghua) porcelain, and tri-colour glazed pottery. Over 5,000 pieces of porcelain carried by the Batu Hitam had been fired at the Changsha Kiln in today's Hunan province. All these genres of porcelain are extremely rare, with few examples of the latter ware extant. The study of this rich trawl will lead to the rewriting of many pages in the history of Chinese ceramics. A leading authority on Chinese ceramic history, Zhang Pusheng, urged the Shanghai Museum to attempt to purchase this find and set up a Maritime Silk Road Museum. Walterfang's company, Seabed Explorations based in New Zealand, had put a provisional price-tag of US$40 million for the Batu Hitam cargo, stipulating that the treasures must be purchased as a single lot. Contending with the Shanghai Museum to purchase the cargo are museums and collectors from Singapore and Qatar. Seabed Explorations, required by law to share part of the proceeds of the sale with the Indonesian government, also insists that the buyer must also agree to pass on a share of future revenues to the company. Although some of the cargo is still being desalinated at the company's Auckland warehouse, a large amount of the porcelain is now in Singapore and so a final deal, probably involving several parties, will soon be struck.

China's eagerness to acquire porcelain salvaged from the South China Sea prompted Christie's-Hong Kong in March 2004 to hold an auction in Melbourne, Australia, of 17,000 Ming dynasty Chinese ceramics recovered in 2001 by Dr Michael Flecker's salvage company from a wreck off the coast of Vietnam. Controversy surrounding the sovereignty of the area of the South China Sea where the ceramics were recovered was one of the factors that led to the decision to hold the auction in Melbourne, rather than Hong Kong. Jennifer Jones of Christie's, however, said in an interview on the ABC's 7:30 Report that the decision to stage the auction in Melbourne was based on the fact that the city has the only branch of Christie's in the region with a sales room large enough to accommodate the lots. The ceramics, of the type called by collectors "Swatow ware", were produced at Zhangzhou in southern China. Roughly half the items are underglaze blue-and-white wares, while the other half are decorated with overglaze enamels. The majority of the wares are medium-sized dishes, most of which are decorated with auspicious floral and faunal motifs. Some of the 760 lots put up for auction are very large, with one lot containing as many as 900 pieces. Christie's announced that a share of the proceeds from the sale will go to the construction of a museum that will exhibit information about the shipwreck and the ceramics.

In the light of sales of salvaged Chinese export porcelain over the past two decades, it is clearly to China's economic advantage to develop its own marine archaeology. Since the establishment of China's only underwater archaeological research centre in 1990, the group's major excavation has been that of a Yuan dynasty vessel discovered on the floor of the Bohai Gulf in Suizhong, Liaoning Province, in 1993.[BGD]