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Unprecedented Excavation Brings Maritime Silk Road to Life

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Science  23 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5977, pp. 424-425
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5977.424

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Summary

In 1987, treasure hunters searching for a 16th century shipwreck off the coast of southern China stumbled instead upon relics from a much older merchant vessel, confirming the existence of an ancient maritime trade route linking China and the West. In an unprecedented feat 20 years later, the 30-meter-long, 10-meter-wide ship, called Nanhai 1, or South China Sea 1, was scooped up along with a thick blanket of silt that entombs and preserves it, and hauled en masse to the Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum. Now, at long last, archaeologists are about to embark on the next stage of Nanhai 1's journey: a plank-by-plank excavation that will recover upward of 80,000 artifacts nestled inside. A preliminary excavation last autumn lifted the veil on medieval Chinese shipbuilding, whetting appetites for more. The next phase will be the first systematic and comprehensive study of a maritime silk route ship and its cargo, archaeologists say.

  • * Li Jiao is a writer in Beijing.