Treasure ahoy!

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Iron fencing seals off a shipwreck site off Vietnam's central coast for excavation. Photos by Hien Cu

A shipwreck discovered last September off the coast of central Vietnam is the oldest, least damaged ever found in the country, and possibly the "most special one" of its kind in Asia, archaeologists say.

While they are intrigued by the antique artifacts found on the boat, they add that the ship itself is as valuable as all the items found in it.

The ship is relatively intact and has some rare materials and a unique structure compared to five other ancient boats found in Vietnam.

At a press briefing held June 30, it was announced that the ship, discovered off Quang Ngai Province, has been identified as a three-story merchandise sailing vessel 700 years old, 20.5 meters long and 5.6 meters at its widest part, and built with 12 bulkheads for 13 compartments.

This was determined after salvage operations conducted between June 4 and 23.

It appears that there had been a fire accident on the ship. However, despite being under water for a long time, one-third of the boat's height is still intact.

The bottom of the ship, still buried under the seabed, is 80 percent intact while its rudders are in almost pristine condition.

Nguyen Viet, archaeologist and director of the Center for Southeast Asian Prehistory, said the sunken boat is one with the least damaged found in North Asia and Southeast Asia.

Viet said the boat came from a place which was rich in rare wood and had a well-developed shipbuilding industry.

The boat was put together with 1,000 pieces of pine timber and nails, including body pieces six to eight centimeters thick. The bulkheads also used whole large pieces of timber.

Viet said the shipwreck is also precious because it is located close to the shore and gives archaeologists like him a chance to get a clear look.

It was found around 100 meters offshore in waters three meters deep.

Viet said previous shipwrecks were dozens of meters under the sea and experts could only look at them and their contents via underwater cameras.

"After more than 30 years of studying ancient shipwrecks, I have never had a chance to touch one like right now, never had a chance to look at their rudders with my eyes.

"This is an extremely valuable chance for the study of old ships in Vietnam as well as around the world," he said.

"As such luck is rare, we need to salvage the boat quickly or we will end up losing it."

He has offered his center's services for the "technical task" of restoring and preserving the boat.

Salvage firm Doan Anh Duong in Ho Chi Minh City said it would salvage the boat by July 15.

Other archaeologists have urged the authorities to spare no expense in picking up the boat from the seabed, saying it could be the last one they have to bother about because the area will soon be taken over by the expansion of the Dung Quat economic zone.

They criticized the company's proposal to bring the ship to the Quang Ngai Museum for display, saying it should be preserved and exhibited right at the excavation site for promoting sea tourism. The ship was sealed off with 300 square meters of iron fencing that cost VND10.5 billion (US$500,000) and pipes installed to pump water out.

Whole lot of treasures

Nine months after the boat was found by local fishermen, Quang Ngai authorities in early June sent archaeologists and the salvage company to recover the boat and its artifacts.

The excavation of the relics were completed after three weeks and more than 4,000 undamaged items dating back to the 13th century and earlier were collected.

Pham Quoc Quan, former director of Vietnam National Museum of History, who joined the search, said the items are of great diversity, including brown-glazed and celadon-glazed potteries; blue and white, and blue flower porcelain items.

One celadon plate was decorated with dragon relief, a typical pottery style of the 13th century, he said.

Jars and vases were brown-glazed two thirds of their height. Typical patterns are of geometry, flowers and waves.

Archaeologists said during the excavation process that it appeared that the artifacts were of the "common" rather than royal variety.

Many daily items of the ship's crew were also found, including a bronze mirror and 19 kinds of round coins with square holes in the center, also dating back to the 13th century at the latest.

Quan said while many items were strange to him and his colleagues, it was also the first time that they'd seen such an arrangement of items on a boat in straight lines and each pottery item separated from another with straw to prevent them from being broken.

He said the ship would provide a lot of new archaeological knowledge. Further research and study including radiocarbon dating was necessary for final conclusions about the ship's age, nationality, and the origin of the artifacts, he said. 

Based on antiques that local police have seized from fishermen on suspicion that they were stolen from the shipwreck, experts feel that the ship is a Chinese one from the 14th century, when the Yuan Dynasty reigned.

Experts also expect to find around 40,000 items on ship estimated to be worth more than VND54 billion ($2.57 million).

The salvage company said they would use divers to look around the boat for further items until July 15.

The shipwreck is the sixth to be excavated in Vietnam since the first ones in the 1990s, in waters off Vung Tau and Kien Giang waters in the south.

Archaeologists have been excited about the shipwreck ever since its discovery as the area was where Western and Asian traders used to meet before going to the mainland to sell their products, and it lay on the silk and pottery route on the sea hundreds of years ago.

Some of them have expressed frustration about the way the local government has treated the antiques, such as starting to make plans to save them only weeks after the discovery, and failing to stop local fishermen from stealing from the site.

An attempt to recover the relics last October failed as the locals protested, arguing that finders should be keepers.

Experts have said the Vietnamese government has always been neglectful about the study of sunken ships.

They said Seabed Exploration, a company that specializes in salvaging shipwrecks in Southeast Asia, estimates that Vietnamese waters have around 40 old ships, but the government has done little with the information and never launched any effort to find out the facts for itself.

Dr. Tong Trung Tin, head of Vietnam's Institute of Archaeology, told Saigon Tiep Thi that the government's salvage operations have typically been launched after the divers have taken almost everything valuable.

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