Salvage of shipwreck in Yangtze River offers new evidentiary materials for ancient Maritime Silk Road

By Cao Lingjuan, Wang Jue, People’s Daily

The Yangtze No. 2 Ancient Shipwreck, the largest wooden shipwreck discovered underwater in China to date, was recently lifted out of the waters off Hengsha island in Shanghai’s Chongming district.

The 150-year-old “time capsule” carries rich historical information. It marks another milestone achievement in China’s underwater archaeology and provides valuable evidentiary materials for the studies of China’s maritime civilization and for the mutual exchanges among civilizations in ancient times.

The Yangtze No. 2 Ancient Shipwreck is one of the largest and best-preserved wooden shipwrecks discovered underwater in China and even the world at large and carrying the richest cultural relics.

Based on its age and size, the shipwreck is presumably a large junk, a kind of ancient Chinese sailing ship. It was the first time that this specific type of ship was discovered in the waters in the coastal areas of China.

The shipwreck was detected in 2015 during a key underwater survey carried out by the Shanghai Research and Protection Center of Cultural Relics and other relevant departments with the sonar technology.

After seven years of underwater archaeological survey, it has been confirmed that this shipwreck dates back to the reign of Emperor Tongzhi (1862-1875) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It is 38.1 meters in length and 9.9 meters in width, and has 31 cabins.

A number of unbroken or reparable cultural relics of different types in the Yangtze No. 2 Ancient Shipwreck have been lifted out of water.

In the cabins, archaeologists found porcelains produced in China’s Jingdezhen, and many other cultural relics were discovered around the shipwreck, including clayware, hookahs made in Vietnam and wood buckets.

Besides, porcelains produced in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), a complete 60-centimeter-high green porcelain vase, and porcelains made in Yixing, east China’s Jiangsu province were also found.

Sitting underwater, the shipwreck was severely washed against by the water. It was exposed on the river bed and needed to be salvaged for protection.

In March this year, a salvage project was officially launched. It was China’s largest ancient wooden ship archaeological and cultural relic protection project.

The project adopted the world’s first technology using arc beams for non-contact migration of cultural relics to salvage the ancient ship.

A workboat named Fenli was made for the project, which was equipped with lifts and had a “moon pool” in the center that was 56 meters long and 20 meters wide. With this vessel, the shipwreck could be lifted through the “moon pool” and then transferred to a dockyard.

On Sept. 6, the salvage project officially started, and after 77 days, the shipwreck was successfully lifted out of the water.

Twenty-two giant arc-shaped beams were laid down around the ancient ship to form a huge semi-cylindrical caisson which was 48 meters long, 19 meters wide, and 9 meters tall. The shipwreck, with sediment and seawater, weighted around 8,800 tons.

The cultural relics discovered on the shipwreck show the life and activities on merchant ships in the late Qing Dynasty, and offer important information for the studies of the history of navigation on the Yangtze River. The boat — evidence of Shanghai’s strategic status on the ancient Maritime Silk Road — will tell a vivid story about China’s maritime history and international commerce.

So far, the municipal government of Shanghai has hauled the shipwreck into a former shipyard in Shanghai and will build the ancient vessel into an archaeological museum for archaeological excavation, cultural relic protection and the researches on underwater cultural relics. It is the first case in China in which excavation, research and museum construction is being carried out simultaneously for a shipwreck.