China’s Museums go under Water

Who does not dream of one day observing what happens under the surface of the water, if possible, sheltered from the currents? See ancient stone engravings and monuments lying at the bottom of a river, float above rich calligraphy and even caress with the gaze hydroglyphs bequeathed by famous scholars?

Admiring a wreck or historic site under water is the best way to shiver with admiration and adventure. Now, it is an activity that everyone can do! Two major museums have been built in China, the Baiheliang museum, an underwater museum immersed under the waters of the Yang Tse at the Three Gorges Dam and the Maritime Silk Road Museum exhibiting the wreck dubbed Nanhai No. 1, a maritime museum displaying the relics of a ship that sank 800 years ago during the Song Dynasty. These sites are among the most important and remarkable achievements of recent underwater archaeology.

The Museum of the Maritime Silk Road
The museum exhibiting the Nanhai No. 1 officially opened its doors in 2009 in Guangdong province, in southern China, much work on the wreck is however yet to be done. To visit it in the water, amateurs no longer need a mask, fins and breath. They can admire the excavations of an eight-century old wooden ship in direct.

The ship called the “Nanhai No. 1” was discovered in 1987 off Hailing Island in Yangjiang. The Canton Rescue Office of the newly created Chinese Underwater Archaeology Centre discovered the wooden vessel resting at a depth of 30 metres, buried under two metres of mud in the waters of eastern Guangdong. 30.4 metres long and 9.8 metres wide, it had sunk during the Song Dynasty (1127-1279). In 2007, the Chinese authorities decided to raise the ship to the surface to bring it back to shore. Its incredible rescue was one of the largest maritime archaeological projects ever undertaken.

With a supposed cargo of nearly 10,000 ancient relics of gold, silver, pottery and porcelain, this boat was refloated by cutting part of the seabed by means of a barge in a steel cage as high as a three-story building.
The ship was indeed recovered in pressing a huge metal container that had no bottom over it and then excavating around it. A ‘bottom’ was then inserted under the wreck and the whole was lifted.

Subsequently, the container now containing Nanhai No. 1 was transferred to a museum built especially for it. Immersed in a reservoir nicknamed the “Crystal Palace”, 64 metres long, 40 metres wide and 12 metres high, it is stored under the same conditions (temperature, water composition, pressure, etc.) as those of the deep waters in which it was found.

Originally the intention was to present the wreck, wich was recovered in its absolute entirety from the ocean floor, in an aquarium-like space partially made of glass inside the Silk Sea Route Museum. Then however difficulties arose. With such a major project, not surprisingly. When the wreck in its container was placed in the swimming-pool, it showed that neither did the swimming-pool’s water remain clean nor could the wreck be fully protected from the rusting metal container. A run against the clock began. Archaeologists set themselves to work to excavate the wreck, not in situ, but in container. The masses of artefacts recovered from the rich merchant ship are unbelievable.

Difficult tasks now await archaeologists and conservators. How to fully research the wreckage while maintaining the hull’s stability, how to ensure in future the transparency of the water to ensure that visitors can see the remains. And how to conserve all the artefacts found.
The museum covers an area of 12 thousand square metres, consisting of three large sections and eight exhibition rooms. Recognized as one of the oldest (800 years old) and largest boats, Nanhai No. 1 is one of the most important remains ever discovered. So if you are around Hailing Island – by all means, stop by.

The Baiheliang Underwater Museum
Another approach to an underwater museum can be found much more in land. On the upper part of the Yangtze River lies indeed a rock engraved with the Chinese characters “Bai He Liang” which means “White Skull Ridge”. It contains many ancient engravings and is located near the Three Gorges Dam, next to the municipality of Chongqing. Measuring 1600 metres long and 15 metres wide, the stone ridge is not only a natural wonder and a tourist attraction, but also one of the oldest flood measuring instruments in the river, a hydrometer.
On this immense rock are to be seen some of the oldest hydrological inscriptions in the world, inscriptions that allow us to understand 1200 years of the evolution of the water level of the Yangtze River in the northern Fuling district near Chongqing.

Before the Three Gorges Reservoir was filled, these inscriptions were hidden during high water periods and became visible when the water was low. Stone engraved fish and other inscriptions served as water level markers and recorded changes in the waterway, as well as crop quality. In order to preserve the inscriptions on the rocks of Baiheliang, which were to be submerged forever by the rising waters of the now blocked Yangtze River, the Chinese department in charge of cultural heritage protection decided the construction of an underwater museum, and completed it in 2009.

The Baiheliang Rock is now protected by an arch-shaped reservoir, which’s water is not under pressure. Two underwater tunnels were built from the shoreline to allow the public to visit the site and see the inscriptions.

Image: Nanhai Museum (c) UNESCO

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