Chinese archaeologists have successfully raised the wreck of the Nanhai No 1, an 800-year-old merchant ship, from the depths of the South China Sea and will begin the laborious process of sifting through its cargo of exquisite porcelain and other treasures.
The ship went down in storms as it left a southern Chinese port to sail the rich trade route known as the ancient Marine Silk Road and was quickly buried in silt, which has preserved the priceless haul of 80,000 relics on board. At 30 metres long and 10 metres wide, it is the largest cargo ship discovered from that golden age of Chinese merchant history.
Salvage experts used a specially designed sealed steel box containing tons of seawater and silt to lift the ship from the seabed while keeping it in the environment in which it has been preserved for hundreds of years.
"We haven't seen any silt or water leakage from the box. The boat is still in almost the same environment as it has been over the centuries," Wu Jiancheng, head of the excavation project, told the Xinhua news agency.
Tow boats pulled the barge carrying Nanhai No. 1, which translates as "South China Sea No. 1", to a temporary port yesterday. It will be put on a huge air bed and sent to a custom-designed museum, built at a cost of 150 million yuan (£10.3m) by the Guangdong provincial government.
Initial excavations have yielded gorgeous green glazed porcelain plates, blue porcelain and gold, silver and tin pots, chinaware specially designed for markets in the Middle East, as well as 6,000 copper coins from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when the boat was built. Mr Jiancheng reckons there are still up to 80,000 relics on the ship.
The treasure is impossible to put a value on, although given the prices antique Chinese vases are garnering in the world's auction houses these days, the haul must be worth billions of pounds. Some Chinese cultural relics experts in China say the importance of the find could be equal to that of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an.
Chinese traders began selling silks, porcelain and tea along the Marine Silk Road around 2,000 years ago, from southern ports in Guangdong and Fujian to countries in south-east Asia, Arab countries and Europe.
There have been several ships discovered in the area and the Nanhai No 1 was the first in 1987. Being buried in two metres of silt has done much to protect the vessel, but it has also made excavation challenging in the murky water.
The museum features a "Crystal Palace" – a glass-walled pool filled with sea water to house the ship – where the water temperature, pressure and other environmental conditions would be the same as the sea bed to better preserve the wreck. Visitors will be able to watch archaeologists at work through the glass.
Raising the shipwreck and keeping its valuable haul of porcelain intact has been a major challenge as scientists face stiff competition to rescue historical artefacts from both local fishermen and from high-tech salvage experts, often working secretly.
The treasures often find their way to auction houses in the US and other foreign markets.