News & Events
Updated rule to help better protect cultural artifacts
Earlier this month, the archaeological excavation of a shipwreck known as Changjiangkou No 2 began off the coast of Shanghai. Work on the wreck－the largest found so far in China, with the most artifacts－is widely expected to mark another milestone in the country's underwater archaeology.
It will be the first large-scale shipwreck to be managed under updated regulations overseeing the protection and supervision of underwater artifacts. Officially approved by the State Council, China's Cabinet, on Feb 28, they take effect on April 1 and are designed to better manage protection of artifacts and curb crimes involving them in Chinese waters.
"It's a milestone in China's legal cultural heritage protection system," Jiang Bo, director of the Center of Maritime Archaeology at Shandong University, told China Daily. "Our understanding of underwater artifacts has been clarified. The country now has more rigid and sound regulations on archaeological research and underwater excavation."
The law extends to all artifacts predating 1911－the end of the Chinese monarchy－in national waters, as well those related to significant historic events that occurred after. It also applies to relics of Chinese origin in international waters.
Additionally, the functions and responsibilities of government departments in charge of maintaining cultural heritage, public security and maritime safety are clearly defined.
"The law creates protection zones for underwater artifacts," said Cui Yong, a researcher at the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. "It'll offer practical guidance for such work in China."
Cui said that fishing often hinders research at key underwater sites, but once the protection zones are established, this will end and artifacts can be better protected.
Archaeological excavations must now also be conducted before the construction of any underwater infrastructure, and for the first time, this has legal support and detailed protocols.
"Projects will provide us with more opportunities to excavate," Cui said. "We don't have the people or the money to conduct comprehensive archaeological surveys of all Chinese waters. However, new projects will now trigger excavations, which they must pay for, a cost that is trivial compared to the investment for infrastructure."
Nanhai One, a Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) shipwreck discovered in 1987 off the coast of Yangjiang, Guangdong province, marked the beginning of underwater archaeology in the country. The fully loaded cargo vessel was carrying porcelain, iron and other commodities.
Over the past few decades, underwater excavations have revealed a great deal of information about trading along the ancient Maritime Silk Road, particularly after Nanhai One was salvaged in 2007 for follow-up examination.
According to Jiang, who is a veteran underwater archaeologist and member of the expert panel in charge of revising the regulations, Nanhai One led to the establishment of the first rules on underwater artifacts in 1989.
"In the 1980s, Western treasure-hunters swarmed the South China Sea and went on massive expeditions at ancient shipwrecks," he said. "Many precious cultural relics, particularly exquisite porcelains, were salvaged and appeared in overseas auctions. That was painful and forced us to accelerate our research and draft a national rule protecting maritime relics."
Many positive changes have occurred in the past 30-odd years. The need to safeguard underwater finds has become international consensus, especially since the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage was ratified in 2001.
Nevertheless, Jiang said that updated regulations were urgently needed as the maritime economy continues its rapid development, making protection more difficult.
"The old rules established a series of general principles," he said. "But the new version has quantified regulations, and that makes it more practical and scientific."
For example, once an artifact-related situation is reported, protection workers must arrive on site within 24 hours and draft a solution within seven days.
Despite having only existed for a little over three decades, China's underwater archaeological research programs have resulted in a number of achievements. Besides Nanhai One, research of ironclad battleships sunk in Liaoning province during the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), also known as the Jiawu War, and the establishment of the Baiheliang underwater museum in Chongqing, home to a hydrometric station dating to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), are among the most notable.
The past few years have also seen closer cooperation between Chinese underwater archaeologists and their overseas counterparts, particularly in countries along the ancient Maritime Silk Road.
"Given China's increasing global influence in underwater archaeology, the new rules echo the spirit of international conventions," Jiang said.
Offering specific guidance on joint cross-border archaeology, Jiang said the law also emphasizes that projects should be carried out for the pursuit of knowledge, not monetary gain.
"The possibility for treasure-hunting and commercial salvage operations is ruled out in cooperative efforts," he said. "Only licensed archaeological institutions can conduct research."
According to a statement jointly released by the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the National Cultural Heritage Administration, more research centers for underwater archaeology will be set up, and nationwide campaigns on artifact crimes will be launched.
Archaeologists are not the only ones responsible for underwater heritage protection. The law notes that, "All individuals and organizations have an obligation to protect underwater relics in accordance with law."
Zhou Gangzhi, a law professor at Central South University in Changsha, Hunan province, said it should also help inject the need to protect underwater relics into public consciousness, referring to a series of clauses focused on the exhibition and use of artifacts.
"The whole of society needs to help," he said. "By better demonstrating the significance of relics through education, we can deepen our understanding of traditional Chinese culture."