Nihao Nanhai One

Indiana Sarah - coins recovered during the Nanhai 1 excavation

Recently, I got to do something I’ve wanted to do for a VERY long time – visit the Nanhai One shipwreck (南海一號). Never heard of it? If you are interested in shipwrecks and maritime archaeology and don’t know about Nanhai One – you should!

Nanhai One is China’s Mary Rose. An 800-year-old, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 AD) merchantman, Nanhai One was discovered in 1987, when an English salvage company looking for the 18th century wreck of the Rhynsburg, stumbled upon it by accident.

Nanhai One was found in 25-metres of water in the western mouth of the Pearl River. In ancient times, this was the starting point of China’s maritime silk route, which connected China with the Middle East and Europe.

Indiana Sarah - a 'One Belt' map of China's traditional maritime and overland silk routes

Approximately 30-metres long, Nanhai One has a beam of 9.8 metres and a depth of 3.5 metres. It takes its name, Nanhai, from the Chinese name for the South Sea and is number one because it was the first shipwreck to be found in the South China Sea.  Two hundred ceramics, several Song coins, 130 kilograms of silver, a brass kettle and a gold waist chain were salvaged before the Chinese authorities, realising that they had found something special, put the operation on hold. The intention was to develop an underwater archaeology capability in China, then go back to the wreck.

Develop, it did. In the two decades following the ship’s discovery, China’s national underwater archaeology team conducted nine separate investigations on Nanhai One, in 1989, 2001, 2002, 2004, and in 2007.  In March 2003, archaeological divers entered a cabin of the ship. More than 4,000 delicate ceramics were found in one cupboard alone! As a result the ship is estimated to have 60,000 to 80,000 objects on board. To put it in perspective, this is more than that recovered from Mary Rose (19,000) and Vasa (40,000) combined.

Indiana Sarah - raising Nanhai 1 shipwreck from the South China Sea

This is an incredible ‘rich’ find, not because of its market value, but because of the opportunity to we have to learn about the past. Nanhai One is a microcosm of Song life that doesn’t exist elsewhere.  Given that Song China was the richest, most skilled, and most populous country on earth at that time, Nanhai One is a time capsule of the highest order.  For an archaeologist, information is treasure and the information that could be gathered Nanhai One is priceless.  Not just because of the ceramics…

The hull of Nanhai One is in exceptional condition and has the potential to yield critical information about Chinese shipbuilding and navigation technologies in the Song Dynasty. The only other Song ship we have is the Quanzhou ship, its younger than Nanhai One and much less of it survives.

In view of the importance of the Nanhai One, a decision was made to recover (above), preserve and house the wreck in a new purpose-built museum, the Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong, on Hailing Island, Yangjiang (below). The Museum is dedicated to China’s history of ‘Ocean Civilization’ and maritime trade.

Indiana Sarah - the Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong on Hailing Island, China

Structurally, the museum comprises five halls designed in the form of interlinking elliptical rings, one large and four smaller ones. Each ellipse is called a palace. The largest ellipse, the Crystal Palace, contains a giant twelve-metre deep aquarium (below), which is where Nanhai One is housed. Here, the water quality, temperature and environment is designed replicate the benthic environment in which the merchantman sank.

Indiana Sarah - the tank holding Nanhai 1 at the Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong

The plan was for the public to view the sunken shipwreck from two sightseeing lounges, each 60-meters long and 40-meters wide, like the sightseeing tunnels seen in large aquariums and ocean parks. There is also to be an underwater archeology platform, from which spectators would have been able watch the original original seabed, the sunken ship and the live underwater work of those archeologists.

Unfortunately, due to some filtration issues with the aquarium, the water levels were lowered and the painstaking excavations are being done dry (below). In some ways, this is a better outcome, as it is easier for visitors to see both the archaeologists at work and the layout of the ship.

Indiana Sarah - the Nanhai 1 during excavation

So far, more than 10,000 copper coins have been recovered from the wreck. The latest, Shaoxing Yuanbao, were minted during the period when the first Southern Song emperor, Gaozhong ruled under the reign name Shaoxing (1131 A.D – 1162 AD).

Thousands of ceramics have also been recovered and thousands more are yet to be.  So far, the ceramics  are principally Longquan and Jingdezhen of a type produced during early in the Southern Song and most  originate from Fujian Province, indicating Quanzhou as Nanhai One’s likely departure point.

Why departure? The ship had a full cargo, so we know it was leaving China to go sell its wares when the ship foundered. If it was on its way home, it would have been empty. Where it was going is another question. We can never be sure, but the archaeologists working on the ship suggest that some of the patterns being found on the ceramics were designed exclusively for the Arab market, so it may have been going as far as Oman.

If ceramics are your thing, you should know that most of the Longquan celadon found, were bowls with carved lotus or stylised floral motif.  Dated to the Southern Song, these were also found in Indonesia’s Jepara shipwreck.  These were popular with the consumers from Southeast Asia and found in sizeable quantity from grave and ancient habitation sites. The glaze on these is transparent. The fact that no Longquan wares with the thick, translucent glaze were found, supports the early Southern Song dating of the wreck, as the latter were introduced during the mid-to-late Song and typify the design that most people associate with Longquan celadon.

Indiana Sarah - Nanhai 1 porcelain during excavation

The Jingdezhen qingbai wares consist of mainly bowls and dishes.  These are finely potted and have a pleasing icy bluish tone. The decoration is either impressed or carved.  One of the bowls on display is carved with the popular infants among foliage motif.

Ceramics from kilns such as Dehua, Cizao in Quanzhou and Mingqing were also recovered.  Dehua white wares (seen above) constitute the largest percentage of the ceramics excavated to date.  These are mainly cover boxes, big bowls, small vases and jarlets and some ewers (pitchers) ranging in colour from a very light bluish to white tone.

Brown glaze and green lead-glazed ceramics from Quanzhou Cizao kiln (below) have also been found. One exception was a Jian temmoku black bowl.  The Jian kilns were located in the inner region near Wuyi Mountain, not near the coast.  Jian temmoku bowls rarely featured as export wares in Southeast Asia. It is intriguing to know whether it was an item used by a member of the crew. I guess only time will tell!

Indiana Sarah - Nanhai 1 brown Quanzhou ceramics during excavation

I could go on all day about this incredible wreck, the porcelain and other objects, including the incredible ink stone with its reversible pattern, but I shan’t. What I shall say is… go there!!! You won’t be sorry.  Plan on being there for a few hours. You will need it. This is not a place to rush around.

How to get there? I went with an organised tour as part of the 17th International Congress of Maritime Museums (more on that next week!).  As such we caught the train from to Guangzhou, stopped off at the Guangdong Museum then hired a bus and driver to take us to Hailing Island.

I have to confess it was an incredibly long day and if you have the time, one best avoided. Depending on where you are coming from, the quickest way to get there is via a flight to Quanzhou, or better yet, a flight to Yiangjiang and a taxi to the Museum.

We stayed at the Crowne Plaza on the beach at Hailing Island, which is 5-minutes from the Museum by car, and probably the same on foot. It has everything you would expect of a Crowne Plaza. The rooms are beautiful, the settling lovely and the food fantastic. The wine less so. Beer is clearly the way to go if you want a drink. The hotel is right on the beach.  Our room had a stunning view across the South China Sea and we were so close to the Museum that you could walk there via the beach – perfect!

Nanhai One is on display at the Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong, Ten Miles Silver Beach, Hailing Island, Yangiang, and a three-hour drive from Guangdong Province, China. The Museum is open from 09:00 – 17:00 daily. Guided tours in both English and Mandarin run throughout the day. We were lucky enough to have a tour and it made the visit all the more enjoyable.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Bo Jiang from the Institute of Underwater Archaeology,  Ye Zilin from the Maritime Silk Road Museum and Yang Zhenjie, also of the Maritime Silk Road Museum, for making this trip possible. It was an honour to meet you all. Your openness and warm hospitality was most appreciated.

A special thanks must also go to Richard Wesley and the team from the Hong Kong Maritime Museum for organising the trip, to Bill Jeffery for hosting it and to the wonderful people at Swire Travel for getting us there and back in one piece!!  I can’t wait to go back…

Want to share your own adventure in archaeology? Connect with Indiana Sarah on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram, and don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Photographs by yours truly and courtesy China Daily… as not all of mine turn out so well. Live and learn…

About Sarah Ward

I’m Sarah Ward, a maritime archaeologist, commercial diver and factual presenter with 16 years experience, both in and out of the water. I’ve investigated sites ranging from the Bronze Age to the modern, across more than 20 countries. A Visiting Professor at Dalian Maritime University and MIT Ocean Discovery Fellow, I am on a mission to bring archaeology to a broader audience, helping people to connect with the past in a meaningful way.

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  1. March 2, 2019 @ 15:47 Indiana Sarah / My 5 Favourite Shipwrecks

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