Underwater treasure hunting endangers sunken relics around south China's Xisha Islands
Treasure hunters have swarmed to the South China Sea in great number in recent years, seeking to uncover the region's massive quantities of underwater relics. However, their actions have also endangered the region's cultural heritage, prompting authorities to take action.
China's Xisha Islands, also known as the Paracel Islands, occupy an area of 15,000 square km in the South China Sea. Speculators and local fishermen have been surveying the waters around the islands for treasure since 1996, when a local fisherman discovered an ancient shipwreck in the area.
Many of the hunters use crude means to retrieve underwater relics, lacking both proper equipment and government approval. Destructive looting has done irreversible damage to the shipwrecks of the Xisha Islands.
XISHA ISLANDS: SUNKEN TREASURE CHEST
Lying on the route of the ancient maritime Silk Road, the waters around the Xisha Islands were and still are heavily traveled shipping lanes, with ships transporting goods between China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, the waters around the islands are also known for their poor navigability, as they are surrounded by coral reefs. Historical records show that a number of ships struck hidden reefs and sank near the islands, taking their treasures with them to the ocean floor.
Official archaeological surveys show that there are at least 122 wrecked ships on the bottom of the South China Sea. Many of them date back to the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1276) dynasties, when trade with foreign countries was thriving.
"According to studies of previously salvaged ships, most of the sunken ships departed from China's costal regions, bound for overseas countries," said Wang Yiping, director-general of the Hainan Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage.
"Previously, official maritime archaeological surveys were largely limited to coastal waters due to a lack of technology and funds. However, archaeological research and salvages of several wreckages have helped to fill in knowledge gaps regarding Chinese and foreign interaction, production, consumption and trade relations centuries ago," Wang added.
The valuable artifacts discovered in the ancient ships, including porcelain, gold and bronzeware, have helped to shed new light on commerce and shipbuilding as they were practiced centuries ago. They are the "missing links" on the Silk Road trade route that linked ancient China with the Western world, Wang said.
Looting destroys the archaeological and anthropological context in which the relics exist, preventing people from fully appreciating the historic significance of the region, Wang said.
LOOTING HURTS: UNDERWATER RELICS IN PERIL
Demand from collectors has fueled the treasure-hunting trade, sending market prices skyward and encouraging local fishermen to illegally plunder shipwrecks.
Many of the ancient ships lay in shallow waters, making treasure hunting lucrative and convenient. Hunters often use dangerous techniques, including underwater demolitions, to uncover the relics, damaging the underwater environment in the process.
In early 2009, the Hainan Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage sent a team to conduct an archaeological survey of the region, collecting 575 artifacts, only three of which were still completely intact.
"This is in sharp contrast with the archaeological survey I participated in 12 years ago," said Li Jilong, director of the team.
"At that time, we discovered 1,500 porcelain items from a variety of dynastic periods. Most of the items were still in good shape when they were identified and brought to the surface," Li recalled.
Li and his team were frustrated to find a lack of variance in the relics they discovered in 2009, as well as saddened at the obvious signs of looting and destruction.
"The looters are savage indeed, and our antiquities are all gone. It's heartbreaking to see the loss of cultural heritage in broad daylight," Li said.
Local boatowners can make 3 million yuan (472,768 U.S. dollars) a year through looting, 500 times the annual per capita net income of local residents in 2010.
An official patrol of 48 wreckage sites near the Xisha Islands in early 2011 confirmed the severity of the looting. Twenty-six of the shipwrecks were missing more than 50 percent of their contents, and other wrecks were found to be spoiled to a lesser degree.
PROTECTION OF CULTURAL HERITAGE: CHALLENGING BUT NECESSARY
Illegal treasure hunting violates a variety of national and international laws, including China's Cultural Relics Preservation Law, Criminal Law and the UN Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
However, authorities have had trouble punishing the looters, as it has been difficult to collect usable evidence, such as the exact time when the looting occurred and who committed the looting. This has allowed a black market for antiquities to thrive in the region.
Cultural heritage protection authorities have reacted by researching effective preservation measures. The Hainan Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage has mandated the construction of a museum, a preservation center and an archaeological research center in its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) in order to raise public awareness about underwater heritage protection.
An unmanned underwater security system consisting of alarms and sonic deterrent devices will also be built to facilitate monitoring and conservation efforts, according to the plan.
Concerted action from all relevant agencies, as well as aggressive law enforcement, are key to the local government's preservation work, said Li Jian'an from Fujian Provincial Museum.