Treasure trove recovered from ancient shipwrecks 5,000 feet underwater

Updated

Nearly 1,000 pieces of treasure — including copper coins and ornate pottery from the Ming Dynasty — were recovered from a pair of ancient shipwrecks discovered in the South China Sea, officials said on Thursday.

The yearlong retrieval operation came after the two shipwrecks were discovered in 2022 about 5,000 feet underwater near the northwest continental slope of the South China Sea, according to China's National Cultural Heritage Administration. Archaeologists used a crewed submersible called "Deep Sea Warrior" to conduct the excavation, officials said.

The team of scientists recovered 890 pieces of artifacts from the first shipwreck, including copper coins, porcelain and pottery items, officials said. The second shipwreck yielded 38 relics, including lumber, turban shells and deer antlers.

The National Cultural Heritage Administration released images of the recovered treasure as well as photos of the submersible retrieving artifacts from the ocean floor with a robotic "claw."

Nearly 1,000 pieces of treasure — including copper coins and ornate pottery from the Ming Dynasty — have been recovered from a pair of ancient shipwrecks discovered in the South China Sea. / Credit: National Cultural Heritage Administration
Nearly 1,000 pieces of treasure — including copper coins and ornate pottery from the Ming Dynasty — have been recovered from a pair of ancient shipwrecks discovered in the South China Sea. / Credit: National Cultural Heritage Administration

While the shipwrecks and their treasure hold obvious cultural value, they also reinforce China's political objectives of asserting territorial claims over the region. Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea under its "nine-dash-line" policy and has tried to leverage those claims with China's historical presence in the region.

In 2016, an international court ruled that major elements of China's claims in the South China Sea were unlawful, but Beijing says it does not recognize the ruling.

Six countries have claims to parts of the sea -- China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia -- and the stakes are high. Trillions of dollars worth of trade pass through the South China Sea each year, and there is a massive amount of oil under the seafloor.

And then there is also shipwreck treasure, which China uses to amplify its contested claims.

"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," said Guan Qiang, deputy head of the NCHA, said Thursday.

Nearly 1,000 pieces of treasure have been recovered from a pair of ancient shipwrecks discovered in the South China Sea. / Credit: National Cultural Heritage Administration
Nearly 1,000 pieces of treasure have been recovered from a pair of ancient shipwrecks discovered in the South China Sea. / Credit: National Cultural Heritage Administration

China's Ming dynasty, which stretched from 1368-1644, was "a period of cultural restoration and expansion," according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum said vast landscapes and artwork featuring flowers and birds "were particularly favored as images that would glorify the new dynasty and convey its benevolence, virtue, and majesty."

The news of the shipwreck treasure comes just weeks after an iconic U.S. Navy submarine that was sunk during World War II was located 3,000 feet underwater in the South China Sea off the coast of the Philippines.

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