Chinese Salvors Raise 19th-Century Wreck From the Yangtze River

Sonar imaging of a wooden wreck in the Yangtze
Courtesy Shanghai Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage

Published Nov 23, 2022 9:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

Salvors and archaeologists in Shanghai have raised the wreck of an ancient wooden merchant ship from the bottom of the Yangtze River Estuary in a delicate, carefully-engineered evolution. 

The find - labeled by archaeologists as the Yangtze River Estuary No. 2 Ancient Vessel - was located near Hengsha Island in 2015. It was submerged for about 150 years, but it is remarkably intact, as are the porcelain and ceramic wares found in its hold. 

The 120-foot vessel was buried in about 20 feet of silt at the bottom of the estuary, and the salvage operation to raise its fragile structure was highly technical. Over the course of eight months, the team installed a steel caisson around the wreck structure. The lifting evolution was much faster: a moonpool barge hoisted the 9,000-tonne caisson and the ship inside over the span of three hours on Monday. The hoisting equipment never made physical contact with the ship, ensuring its safety during the recovery. It is believed to be the first time that this particular technique has ever been used.

The wreck was delivered to a temporary pier on Hengsha Island. It is slated for transfer to the former site of Shanghai Shipyard, according to state media, and will undergo an extensive examination and preservation process. It will be turned into a museum site, according to the Sixth Tone, befitting its status as the largest and best-preserved historical wooden vessel yet discovered in China. 

The wreck dates back to the Qing Dynasty, and likely went down in the period from 1862-75. Some of the wares inside dated back far further, to the 13th century Yuan Dynasty, but most were typical trade goods of the late Qing period. The team has recovered 600 pieces of ceramic from the vessel so far, including some from as far away as Jiangxi and Vietnam. Among the finds are stunning and intact porcelain vases - each packed full of cups to maximize use of space on board the merchant vessel. The vessel has 31 compartments and is filled with silt, a natural preservative - suggesting the promise of many more finds to come. 

The lifting "marks the perfect combination of underwater engineering and cultural relics protection principles," Guan Qiang, deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, told Xinhua.