Ming Dynasty Artefacts Found in South China Shipwreck

In an excavated shipwreck beneath the South China Sea, around 900 rare artefacts have been uncovered which date back to the Ming Dynasty.

Jun 19, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

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A treasure trove of more than 900 artefacts have been discovered within a pair of ancient shipwrecks 5,000 feet under the South China Sea, which date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The discovery was announced by the Chinese National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) last week. This project was carried out by a team from the National Center for Archaeology, the Chinese Academy of Science, and a museum in Hainan. Guan Qiang, deputy head of the NCHA says, “The discovery provides evidence that Chinese ancestors developed, utilized and traveled to and from the South China Sea, with the two shipwrecks serving as important witnesses to trade and cultural exchanges along the ancient Maritime Silk Road.”


The Excavation

Excavation work being carried out under the sea in China. Source: Express Digest


The ships were found a mile deep in water on the northwest slope of the ocean, separated from one another by around 10 nautical miles. Archaeologists carried out the excavation of the two ships over the course of a year, using a series of submersibles including one known as ‘Deep Sea Warrior’, which features a robotic claw for gathering items from the ocean floor. Around 890 objects were gathered from the first vessel, including coins, pottery, and porcelain, while 38 further items from the second ship included logs, shells and deer antlers, and even more items gathered from the surrounding area. The team also made detailed documentation of the site using underwater cameras and a 3D laser scanner.


Historical Importance: The Ming Dynasty

Pottery from the Ming Dynasty. Source: Smart History


The Ming Dynasty was a fruitful period of expansion in Chinese history, spanning from the 14th to the 17th century. During this time the population of China doubled, while the country established important trade deals and cultural relationships with the wider world. China also developed its own distinctive and desirable exports as the arts and culture flourished, including distinctive Ming China and silk, which are highly sought after and valuable today.


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Archaeologists have suggested the two ships date from different periods during the Ming dynasty, and each was transporting their own goods within China before they sank. Researchers believe the ship containing porcelain dates from roughly the Zhengde period (1505-1521), and was travelling from Jingdezhen in China, while the ship containing logs may date further back, to the time of Emperior Hongzhi (1487-1505).


Political Significance

Political map of the South China Sea. Source: ontheworldmap.com


There are six different countries with claims to parts of the South China Sea where the two shipwrecks were found – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia. Millions of dollars worth of trade make their way through this stretch of ocean today, and vast reserves of oil lie below the sea, making it one of the most sought after parts of the world. However, this recent discovery of Ming artefacts reinforces China’s historical and territorial hold over the area.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.