On June 21st, China announced that a 3-5 year plan for excavating and studying the remains of a shipwrecked merchant vessel dating to the Song Dynasty shall commence shortly.
The vessel, known as Nanhai No. 1 was a merchant trading vessel that sank off the coast of Guangdong Province.
Guangdong Province highlighted in red
In 2007, it was successfully pulled from the sea and has been housed in the newly constructed Marine Silk Road Museum in Yangjiang, Guangdong, in a tank of silt and seawater measuring 64 meters long, 40 meters wide, 23 meters high and about 12 meters in depth.
China is hoping that the information gleaned from excavating this well-preserved vessel will lead to new insights about the supposed Maritime Silk Road trading route.
Maritime Silk Road Trading Route highlighted in BLUE
Everyone is(or should be) familiar with stories and history of the Silk Road’s land routes by now, but marine trade between east and west during the last thousand years has never really been studied, mostly because nautical archaeology is notoriously difficult, especially on the cultural heritage front.
For the most part, underwater archaeological and cultural heritage sites t belong to the country in whose territorial waters they are located. That means that generally, if a site is located near the coast of a country, by law, that site belongs to that country. Both the US and China have domestic laws that stipulate this, though the difference between them is that in the US, if the site is located on private property, the owner can do with it as they wish, and in China, all sites within all territorial waters belong to the government.
Now, WHERE a country decides their territorial waters begin and end has been a thorn in the side of underwater archaeological site protection. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles off the very edge of the country’s coastline in all directions.* The problem with China is that it often claims property rights to ancient Chinese merchant vessels, like the Nanhai No. 1, that are currently located in the territorial waters of other modern nations. How these issues get resolved are not often reported, so it’s really anyone’s guess.
Regardless, it will be interesting to see how well-preserved the Nanhai No. 1 is now that is has been removed from the ocean and kept in a tank for the past several years. Hopefully it will yield useful information about Song Dynasty maritime trading, a subject that is not often studied by archaeologists, and open up a new field of inquiry for those interested not only in East Asian maritime history, but also in underwater archaeology.
As for the question of whether the Marine Silk Road actually exists, I don’t know, but I can see why China would hope that it does.
*This is a very meatball overview of the laws governing underwater archaeology. The actual circumstances are far more complex, and are constantly subject to change. There are also constant problems between international and domestic legislation concerning maritime property that require much more extensive coverage than can be provided here.
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