Safeguarding China's sunken riches

Updated: 2014-02-25 10:48

(China Daily)

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Beating the looters

The biggest headaches come from looters and treasure hunters, according to Zhao, who has witnessed an illegal salvage operation firsthand.

"Dozens of fishing boats were floating above an ancient sunken cargo boat. Each had a diver working underwater," he said. "They (the looters) don't mind destroying the hull to get at the porcelain. They don't even mind breaking some of the pieces because their rarity brings a high price. All they care about is money."

Safeguarding China's sunken riches

In 2008, Chinese archaeologists undertook research into a merchant vessel built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that sank off the Huaguang reef near the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea. Provided to China Daily

Professional archaeology and commercial salvage are irreconcilable, according to Zhao. Outright looters are systematically scouring the best of the wrecks in search of gold and other booty. They supply the underground art market and unscrupulous or unsuspecting collectors, but in doing so, they also destroy the archaeological context that provides scholars with invaluable evidence.

Although the government has launched a series of crackdowns, in many coastal areas divers have picked many accessible wrecks clean. Now, few of the conspicuous wrecks lying in waters shallower than 20 meters are worth excavating.

"They sail out at night or on typhoon days to dodge the police. One diver died because of a problem with his gear as he dug up relics of the coast of Fujian," Zhao said. "Once, we covered a wreck with sand to hide it from looters before we left, but it was gone after a few months. Only a large piece of the bottom of the hull was left."

The researchers are competing with looters for the best wrecks, according to Zhang Wei, a maritime archaeologist and deputy director of the National Museum of China. But with their limited resources and public attention, the archaeologists are falling behind in the race.

Founded in 1987, a half-century after its Western peers, China's Underwater Archaeology Research Center sent Zhang to the Netherlands to learn diving skills.

"I didn't know a thing about diving and had just two weeks of training in a swimming pool before my coach dropped me into the ocean," said Zhang. "I didn't even have my own wetsuit, so I borrowed one from other divers in the Netherlands."

Since that humble beginning 27 years ago, the number of archaeological divers working along China's coast has risen to 55. Among them, 31 are able to dive deeper than 60 meters, but only three are capable of descending to 100 meters.

But the number of divers is far from enough to search the entirety of China's 180,000 km coastline, according to the National Museum. The researchers are divided between several salvage projects, each requiring considerable time, money and personnel. Each salvage site needs a team of 10 to 12 people, including at least six to eight divers.

"We've found more than 200 wrecks that are worth studying, but our biggest problem is that we don't have enough underwater archaeologists," said Qiu Gang, head of the Hainan Museum. "Every time we find a wreck, we must protect it before the looters arrive. But we have no people available."

In addition to the shortage of human resources, Qiu stressed the importance of financial support. Training a world-class archaeological diver costs about 400,000 yuan ($66,000), and that figure doesn't include the cost of the equipment, which is around 30,000 yuan for each diver.

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