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I'm fishing for cultural relics at the bottom of the sea! How can underwater archaeology uncover the sunken civilization?

Think of underwater treasure and your mind may well instantly fly to the idea of buccaneers on the high seas and looking for sunken ships laden with gold coins. However, another group of professionals, archaeologists, have often cast their eyes seaward in search of the big find, which is not really surprising given that 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water.

In August 1987, a commercial shipwreck dating back to the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279) was discovered in the seas off Guangdong province, when a British company was looking for the merchant ship The Rheinburg. The ship, about 30 meters long and with a beam of 10 meters, was later named Nanhai No 1 (Nanhai is the Chinese for South China Sea).

Three months after the discovery, China, lacking archaeologists who could dive, decided to establish an underwater archaeology research center at the China History Museum, now known as the National Museum, in Beijing.

When the research center was founded, Cui Yong, a field archaeologist at the Guangdong Museum in Guangzhou, applied to work at the research center, eventually becoming one of nine archaeologists from Beijing and Guangdong who passed a rigorous physical examination.

“Being a good diver is not enough,” Cui says. “Trust between colleagues and teamwork is critical when you’re working underwater.”

Underwater archaeologists work in pairs so they can properly deal with potential situations such as equipment breakdown and water disturbance.

“The ship is well preserved because it was buried under thick mud,” Cui says. “However, it is that very mud, as well as low visibility, that adds difficulty to archaeological work.”

“What method archaeologists use depends on the condition and value of the ship, its environment and other considerations,” Cui says.

In dealing with the wreck of Nan’ao No 1, found in the waters of Guangdong in 2007, the ship was left in the place it was found because it was only 1.5 meters under water and could be seen clearly. 

However, the wreck of Huaguangjiao No 1, found in the waters of Hainan, was disassembled underwater and reassembled on land.

Nanhai No 1 remains the oldest, largest and best-preserved commercial shipwreck in the world that has been recovered from the sea.

The construction of the museum also became pivotal in driving the economic development of the city of Yangjiang, of which Hailing Island is a part. 

Cui, 59, will retire next year, much of his career having been closely connected with Nanhai No 1.

“The excavation work is almost done, and the next plan is to preserve and protect the ship,” he says.