Ming shipwrecks illuminate maritime Silk Road

After two years of excavation, more than 900 artifacts have been recovered from two Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) shipwrecks discovered in China’s southern island province of Hainan. Excavating the deep-sea shipwrecks has required pioneering technologies including 3D laser scanners and high-definition cameras to map the sites and stitch together full panoramic views of the wreck sites using photogrammetry techniques and state-of-the-art submersible mud pumping and blowing devices to do the actual digging.

The two shipwrecks were discovered 4,900 feet deep on the northwest continental slope of the South China Sea in October of 2022. Dating to the Zhengde period (1506-1521), Ship No. 1 was carrying an enormous cargo of more than 100,000 porcelain, pottery, bronze, iron bamboo and wood artifacts intended for export. Archaeologists believe its departure point may have been Guangdong or Fujian provinces and its destination was the Malaysian center of trade Malacca. Ship No. 2 was going in the other direction, carrying timber from Malacca back to Guangdong or Fujian. It dates to the Hongzhi period, 1488-1505.

Since their discovery, a total of 890 pieces of porcelain, pottery and copper coins have been recovered from Ship No. 1, including blue-and-white porcelain, green-glazed porcelain, white-glazed porcelain, blue-and-white-glazed porcelain, enamel porcelain and brown-glazed pottery. A total of 38 objects, including wood logs, porcelain, pottery, shells and deer antlers, have been recovered from Ship No. 2. Two archaeologists firsts were discovered on the wrecks: enamelware on Ship No. 1 and ebony wood on Ship No. 2, the first of their kind ever found in shipwreck archaeology.

The shipwrecks and their rich, varied cargos shed light on the bustling activity on the Maritime Silk Road during the middle Ming Dynasty period.

The archaeologists said the two ancient ships were travelling in different directions, and the wrecks were found less than 20km (12 miles) apart. They said it was the first time vessels returning and arriving had been found near each other, indicating they were travelling on an important trade route.

“It helps us study the maritime Silk Road’s reciprocal flow,” Tang Wei, the director of the Chinese National Centre for Archaeology, said.

The artifacts recovered from the shipwrecks are currently being recorded and conserved. The Hainan Provincial Department of Tourism, Culture, Radio, Television and Sports plans to publish complete photographic catalogues of all the finds and to put a selection of the findings on display in special exhibitions and museums.

One thought on “Ming shipwrecks illuminate maritime Silk Road

  1. A few thoughts: 1. The ship was vastly overloaded. 2. A certain level of breakage was expected. 3. Some level of navigation was used to maintain heading other than dead reckoning.

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