Archaeologists Recover 900 Artifacts From Ming Dynasty Shipwrecks in South China Sea

The trove of objects—including pottery, porcelain, shells and coins—was found roughly a mile below the surface

Robot arm grabbing a piece of pottery underwater
Archaeologists used manned and unmanned submersibles to recover artifacts from the wrecks. National Cultural Heritage Administration

Underwater archaeologists in China have recovered more than 900 artifacts from two merchant vessels that sank to the bottom of the South China Sea during the Ming dynasty.

The ships are located roughly a mile below the surface some 93 miles southeast of the island of Hainan, reports the South China Morning Post’s Kamun Lai. They are situated about 14 miles apart from one another.

During three phases over the past year, researchers hauled up 890 objects from the first vessel, including copper coins, pottery and porcelain, according to a statement from China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA). That’s just a small fraction of the more than 10,000 items found at the site. Archaeologists suspect the vessel was transporting porcelain from Jingdezhen, China, when it sank.

The team recovered 38 items from the second ship, including shells, deer antlers, porcelain, pottery and ebony logs that likely originated from somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Archaeologists think the ships operated during different parts of the Ming dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644.

Many of the artifacts came from the Zhengde period of the Ming dynasty, which spanned 1505 to 1521. But others may be older, dating back to the time of Emperor Hongzhi, who reigned from 1487 to 1505, as Fox Weather’s Chris Oberholtz reported last year.

Archaeologists used manned and unmanned submersibles to collect the artifacts and gather sediment samples from the sea floor. They also documented the wreck sites with high-definition underwater cameras and a 3D laser scanner.

Pieces of pottery
Archaeologists hauled up more than 900 artifacts, including pieces of porcelain and pottery. National Cultural Heritage Administration

The project was a collaboration between the National Center for Archaeology, the Chinese Academy of Science and a museum in Hainan.

“The discovery provides evidence that Chinese ancestors developed, utilized and traveled to and from the South China Sea, with the two shipwrecks serving as important witnesses to trade and cultural exchanges along the ancient Maritime Silk Road,” says Guan Qiang, deputy head of the NCHA, in the agency’s statement.

During the Ming dynasty, China’s population doubled, and the country formed vital cultural ties with the West. Ming porcelain, with its classic blue and white color scheme, became an especially popular export. China also exported silk and imported new foods, including peanuts and sweet potatoes.

The period had its own distinctive artistic aesthetic. As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art writes, “Palace painters excelled in religious themes, moralizing narrative subjects, auspicious bird-and-flower motifs and large-scale landscape compositions.”

The shipwreck treasures aren’t the only recent discoveries in the South China Sea, according to CBS News’ Stephen Smith. Just last month, officials announced the discovery of a World War II-era American Navy submarine off the Philippine island of Luzon.

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