Archives For Conservation

chinese shipwrecks

Li River, Guilin, China
CC Image Courtesy of olly301 on Flickr

Xinhua News is reporting that China is building its first dedicated marine archaeology vessel. The ~175 foot ship will displace 860 tons and have the ability to both locate and excavate shipwrecks within Chinese coastal waters. Operated by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, it will be put to use finding and preserving China’s numerous ancient shipwrecks.

Much like Vietnam, China has the potential to be the location of a vast number of discoveries due to its society having been stunted from revolution, insularity and the ravages of communism. Today, the increase of both nations’ wealth and openness to the world has created opportunities for marine exploration to blossom.

Currently, Chinese marine archaeologists must rely on rented fishing vessels to serve as expedition platforms, although in the case of the Awa Maru project, the Chinese government spent millions on a dedicated salvage barge.

alaskan ferry

Kalakala Ferry Today
CC Image Courtesy of rbanks on Flickr

Once a majestic art deco ship shuttling passengers across Puget Sound, the Kalakala is today rusting away at her moorings in Tacoma, Washington. For nearly a decade, owner Steve Rodrigues has attempted to restore the ship to her former glory, but has faced serious funding issues and legal troubles with the US Coast Guard and the state of Washington. Unless someone with deep pockets steps up soon, the ship is most likely destined for the breakers yard.

Originally built in 1926, the Kalakala has had a colorful history and began life as the Peralta, a traditionally styled ferry operating in San Francisco, California. In 1933, a fire at Peralta’s terminal wrecked the ship’s superstructure and, instead of rebuilding the vessel in its prior form, the ship was graced with a sleek art deco superstructure to become the world’s first art deco ship.

Kalakala entered service in 1935, but a design defect obstructed the view of the bow from the bridge and the ship was plagued with poor handling in the tight confines of ferry terminals. Kalakala continued ferrying passengers around Washington and British Columbia until 1967. The vessel then sailed to Alaska where she was purposely run aground and converted into a shrimp processing plant on dry land. In 1982, the Kalakala’s owners declared bankruptcy. Thus began a 30 year dance of legal maneuvering and fundraising during which the vessel was moved back to Washington and efforts launched to restore the ship.

art deco ship

Kalakala Ferry in 1958
CC Image Courtesy of kitchener.lord on Flickr

Portimao shipwreck

Portimao, Portugal
CC Image Courtesy of Juan Antonio Canales on Flickr

Last week, archaeologists began dive operations on a wreck in the Arade River near Portimao, Portugal. Amphora have previously been discovered at the wreck site, pointing to the ship having sunk during from Roman times. The survey of the site is the first in a series of expeditions to the ship planned for the next 3 to 4 years. Archaeologists are hoping to learn more about Portimao’s role in Roman trade routes. Dives are also planned to wrecks discovered in the 1990’s that are believed to be Spanish ships from the 17th century.

The surveying of the wreck site coincides with the deliberate sinking of two decommissioned Portuguese warships to create artificial reefs. Local authorities are hoping to make Portimao a diving tourism site and the warships, which will eventually be joined by two more ships, into an underwater diving resort.

kublai khan

Ha Long Bay
CC Image Courtesy of Aftab Uzzaman on Flickr

Australian news site The Age reports that Australian archaeologists are continuing to assist Vietnamese cultural authorities in the development of their maritime archaeological program. Every month Australian advisers from various universities spend time in Vietnam holding seminars on the tools and best practices techniques necessary for excavation of wrecks located off the Vietnamese coast. Additionally, the advisers are assisting with two specific projects – the porcelain shipwreck found earlier this year off Quang Ngai and the search for Kublai Khan’s 1288 invasion fleet.

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, founded China’s Yuan Dynasty in 1279 and set off on a campaign of expansion. Khan set his sights on northern Vietnam and in 1288 dispatched an army and fleet to subjugate Vietnam’s Dai Viet dynasty. The Yuan fleet arrived off Ha Long Bay with the aim of re-supplying the Yuan army and maneuvered up the Bach Dang River. Unfortunately for Khan’s fleet, the Dai Viet had prepared for such a contingency. The Dai Viet had placed wooden stakes in the riverbed and prepared fire ships to attack Khan’s fleet. As the tide began to ebb, the Dai Viet released their fire ships in the narrow confines of the river. In an attempt to avoid the fire ships, the Yuan fleet fled down the river and holed themselves on the wooden stakes which had been exposed by low tide.

The destruction of the Yuan fleet effectively ended Khan’s designs on Vietnam and preserved the Dai Viet dynasty. Archaeologists have located some of the wooden stakes and ships from the battle and efforts are underway to excavate and preserve artifacts from Khan’s fleet.

chinese porcelain

Blue & White Yuan Dynasty Porcelain
Photo: history.cultural-china.com

Vietnamese authorities are attempting to protect a 14th century shipwreck discovered earlier this year in the province of Quang Ngai. Local fishermen originally found the wreck and salvaged some of its Yuan dynasty porcelain cargo. Authorities quickly swooped in and confiscated the recovered porcelain. Now, locals are determined to profit from the wreck by salvaging it themselves.

Last Saturday, Vietnamese police guarding the wreck were attacked by a throng of 60 fishermen. Two policemen were injured after the fishermen pelted the guards with rocks and swarmed their boats and vehicles. The mob freed a fisherman the authorities were attempting to arrest and hundreds of police eventually had to be called in to quell the violence. The police presence will most likely continue for the 3 months it is predicted to take to salvage the wreck.

Odysseus' and the sirens

CC Image Courtesy of Ken & Nyetta on Flickr

The Mediterranean Sea continues to give up the secrets it harbors from Greek and Roman times. This week, archaeologists working in Turkey discovered the well-preserved remains of 2 Roman-era shipwrecks. Excavations have been ongoing in the area since 1995 and are being performed by Italian archaeologists. The site was once the location of a Roman trading city named Elaiussa Sebaste which was founded in the 2nd century BC. One ship is from the Roman Imperial period and the other from around 500 AD. They both contain cargoes of amphorae and marble. Archaeologists hope that further excavations and study will supply insight into Roman trading patterns between Elaiussa Sebaste, Syria, Egypt and the Anatolian peninsula.

Work on a third wreck, this one from around 350 BC, is likely to assist archaeologists in their understanding of Greek shipbuilding techniques. Dubbed the Mazotos Wreck, the ship was discovered in 2006 and archaeological work began in 2007. This year the team found that approximately 45 feet of planking as well as the ship’s keel have been preserved and are useful for study. The ship was carrying ~1,000 jugs of wine when it sank and the remains of its cargo have helped researchers better understand the trade of ancient Greece.

These are not the only discoveries made this year in ancient Greek and Roman maritime archaeology. Earlier this year, surveyors for a gas pipeline discovered a Roman era wreck that dispelled the belief that Roman trading vessels hugged the shoreline and did not traverse open water. Robert Ballard also discovered two wrecks off the coast of Cyprus. With the continuation of exploration operations on the Antikythera Mechanism wreck, there could be even more revelations to come as the year draws to a close.

More than 100 years ago, Greek skin divers discovered the remains of an ancient shipwreck nearly 200 feet below the surface of the Aegean Sea near the Greek island of Antikythera. For 2 years, divers utilized crude diving gear to recover items from the wreck. Among the items discovered was what appeared to be a random assortment of cogs and gears. Not until 2006 were scientists able to discern that the object was in fact an ancient computer designed for use as a calendar as well as to show the positions of the sun, moon and planets in the sky. The computer, termed the Antikythera Mechanism, could evn predict the timing of eclipses. The device is believed to have been built in the 1st century BC and the video above shows a Lego recreation of the device.

The diving technology of the early 20th century prohibited a full survey of the site and 2 divers were left paralyzed from the bends and another killed during the work. Apart from a few brief dives on the site, it has remained undisturbed until this year. Scientists with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are set to begin surveying the site this week after reaching a deal with the Greek government. Using rebreather gear and self-propelled dive scooters, the scientists will be able to dive deeper and go farther than earlier expeditions and hope to learn more about Greek trade patterns and technology from the expedition.

polish palace

Kazimierz Palace
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Polish archaeologists and police are exploiting historically low water levels on the Vistula River to recover dozens of marble and alabaster decorative elements looted from Polish landmarks in the 17th century. Utilizing a Mil Mi-8 police helicopter, archaeologists are carefully lifting the sculptures from the riverbed and transporting them to drier locales for conservation and restoration. The decorative elements were looted from Poland’s Royal Castle and the Kazimierz Palace by Swedish forces after they captured Warsaw during the mid-17th century. The loot was loaded onto barges and prepared for transit to Sweden via the Vistula and then the Baltic. At least one barge, though, sank en route and scattered its precious cargo along the riverbed. Polish archaeologists have known about the treasures, but river conditions have rarely cooperated such that they could retrieve the pieces. Efforts over the last 3 years have yielded some results, but nothing like the finds archaeologists are making now.

Today, Sweden is most often associated with IKEA furniture, safe cars (cb radio optional), cars born from jets and ABBA, but the Swedish Empire once encompassed 1.1 million square kilometers and dominated its northern European rivals. By comparison, the Holy Roman Empire was 1 million sq. km. and modern Sweden is 450,000 sq. km. The Empire was founded in 1611 by Gustavus Adolphus, a brilliant military commander, who defeated his rivals in the Thirty Years War and began the expansion of Sweden’s borders. Between 1600 and 1721, the Poles and the Swedes clashed no fewer than 6 times in conflicts lasting up to 11 years. It was during one of these wars that the decorative structures being recovered today were looted from Poland’s Royal Castle and the Kazimierz Palace. In addition to waging war against the Poles, the Swedes also attacked and occupied territory in modern day Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Russia. The Great Northern War which concluded in 1721 marked the end of Sweden’s status as a great power and the empire’s territorial breadth began to slowly recede.

chinese porcelain

Blue & White Yuan Dynasty Porcelain
Photo: history.cultural-china.com

Earlier this year Vietnamese fishermen in the province of Quang Ngai came across a shipwreck full of Chinese porcelain. The fishermen recovered several artifacts and later tried to illegally sell them, but the items were intercepted by Vietnamese authorities. After examination by archaeologists and porcelain experts, the porcelain bowls and incense burners have been determined to be from the 14th century Yuan Dynasty. The porcelain is among the oldest artifacts found in Vietnam and the find is believed to be relatively well preserved beneath sand and silt. Recovery operations have not been announced, but the wreck would undoubtedly yield increased knowledge about trading patterns from the period along with priceless porcelain.

Porcelain has long been an important export for the Chinese economy. The Pacific Ocean, South China Sea and even the Atlantic Ocean are littered with porcelain carrying shipwrecks from every Chinese dynasty. During the American Colonial Period, Chinese porcelain from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province was considered one of the highest forms of conspicuous consumption. New England merchants made fortunes importing porcelain from China and one item in especial demand was porcelain decorated with the owner’s coat of arms – “armorial porcelain.” Even President George Washington owned a dinner service set of the trendy armorial porcelain. Pieces of Washington’s porcelain are now housed at Washington & Lee’s Reeves Center – one of the largest collections of Chinese export porcelain in the world.

Aagtekerke

CC Image courtesy of Enrique Ruiz Crespo on Flickr

Australian shipwreck diver Hugh Edwards believes he has located the wreck of the 18th century Dutch East Indiaman Aagtekerke in waters off the Abrolhos Islands in Western Australia. Lost in 1726, the Aagtekerke was en route from Africa to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia). This isn’t the first wreck Edwards has discovered in his 50+ year diving career. In 1963, Edwards located the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia which had wrecked on its maiden voyage in 1629. Over a period of four years from 1970 – 1974, marine archaeologists worked to recover and preserve artifacts from the Batavia and they are now housed in the Western Australia Museum in Perth. The author intends to make a site visit to the museum in the near future and will post his findings when he does so. Additionally, a replica of the Batavia serves as a museum ship in Leylstad, Netherlands.

In the same year Edwards found the Batavia, he located another Dutch East Indiaman, the Zeewyck, which had sunk in 1727. In subsequent trips to the wreck site Edwards discovered several artifacts including an elephant tusk that didn’t coincide with the historical record for the Zeewyck. After nearly 50 years of piecing together various clues, Edwards has come to the conclusion that the Zeewyck and the Aagtekerke sank within 300 meters of one another and their debris field intermixed. Translated journal entries from survivors of the Zeewyck indicate that they had come across debris from another shipwreck when their own ship sank and the presence of the elephant tusk (the Aagtekerke was carrying 214 tusks and the Zeewyck none) seem to confirm his thesis.

Edwards is continuing to explore the site and is hoping to locate the ~30,000 silver coins believed to be among the Aagtekerke’s cargo. Under Australian law, any artifacts raised from the site would belong to the Australian government, however, under generally recognized principles of admiralty/salvage law, Edwards might be entitled to a salvage award for any artifacts he recovers.