800-Year-Old 'Ocean Tun-huang' Salvaged

December 25, 2007 Updated: December 25, 2007

An 800-year-old Chinese merchant ship was entirely salvaged from the Southern China sea and transported into the nearby newly constructed “Marine Silk Road Museum” in late December. It is estimated that the ship contains 60,000 to 80,000 pieces of precious relics with a total value exceeding $100 billion.

This Song dynasty shipwreck was first discovered by a British salvage company in 1987 while salvaging a ship from India. It was then named Nanhai No.1 by archaeologists.

According to preliminary inspections, the merchant ship was heading towards Southeast Asia or Middle East region before it sank. The ship, which has a pointed head, is 30.4 meter long, 9.8 meter wide, and 8 meters high (not including the mast). It has 600 tons water displacement. During small scale salvage operations carried out by underwater archaeologists in 2001, over 4,000 pieces of china, gold, silver, and copper relics were found. Most of them are precious articles and some are the only ones of their kind. Most of them are in good condition.

Experts call the ship “Ocean Tun-huang.” It is believed that its salvage will provide a glimpse into the splendidness of Chinese culture at its peak during the Tang and Song dynasties. At that time, China was the richest and most developed country around the world and its culture and products were exported to other countries. Experts believe “Nanhai No. 1” provides a reliable and typical example of the existence of a marine silk road. Just from the dimensions of the ship, it seems like a miracle that the Chinese 800 years ago could build such a big marine vessel.

Because the ship was soaked in the sea water for several hundred years, all china and fur products found on the ship had to go through a demineralization and de-oxidation treatment. Some of the articles from “Nanhai No. 1” salvaged during previous attempts were already showing signs of crack and oxidation on the surface due to salt crystallization. The glazed surfaces of many of the china articles have bumps and cracks.

In order to protect these precious relics, archaeologists finally came up with the solution of an “entire body salvage,”- that is to seal the whole ship in a giant transparent tank together with the sea water and sediment soil inside. All the articles will be kept inside the tank, until a better protection method can be found in five years. Before that happens, visitors of the “Marine Silk Road Museum” can watch how archaeologists salvage the treasures in the ship through the transparent tank.

It is reported that this is the world's largest “entire body salvage”. The tank is 36 meters long, 15 meters wide, and 12 meters high. The ship and the sea water and the sediment soil inside weigh a total of 3,500 tons.