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In China, it's hard to overstate just how much history lies right underfoot. The country has long been a treasure trove for archaeologists.

Until recently, they've been confined there to digging on dry land. But, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the country has recently become a powerhouse of nautical archaeology, combing its vast coastline for shipwrecks, riches, and traces of a trade route known as the Maritime Silk Road.

ANTHONY KUHN: About a thousand visitors a day flock to one of China's newest museums here in Guangdong Province. It's right on the beach, facing the South China Sea. The museum houses one of the world's oldest known merchant ships, dating from the Southern Song Dynasty in the 13th century. It's been dubbed the South China Sea Number One.

Museum guide Liu Jinxiu explains that Chinese and British explorers discovered the ship by accident in 1987, while looking for a sunken British vessel.

Ms. LIU JINXIU (Guide, Maritime Silk Road Museum): (Through translator) The explorers used a claw to fish out more than 200 pieces of fine Chinese porcelain. From this, they deduced that the ship was Chinese and not British, and the two sides ended their cooperation.

KUHN: At the time, China lacked the means to salvage this ship. Archaeologist Zhang Wei of the National Museum of China remembers how he went about setting up the field of nautical archaeology for his country.

Mr. ZHANG WEI (Director, Department of Underwater Archaeology, National Museum of Chinese History): (Through translator) I had previously spent five years as a field archaeologist. But I switched careers because China wanted to get into underwater archaeology. At the time, we had no personnel, no equipment and no knowledge. We had to start from scratch.

(Soundbite of a video)

KUHN: A video at the museum illustrates how Zhang's team returned to the site of the South China Sea Number One, two decades after its initial discovery. This time, the team enclosed the ship in a huge steel container and then hoisted it off the ocean floor - silt, seawater and all - weighing more than 3,000 tons. The ship was then rolled ashore and put into the museum.

Zhang Wei says that's not how nautical archaeology is usually done.

Mr. WEI: (Through translator) Shipwrecks are usually supposed to be left in place. But we feared that everyone knew this ship's location. And if we didn't salvage it, it might be looted.

KUHN: Though it's sitting in the museum, the ship remains hidden under the silt and water in its container. Archaeologists are still deciding on just how to excavate it.

Museum curator Ma Haizao says archaeologists want to get as much information as they can from the ship about ancient China's shipbuilding and maritime commerce. When exactly they excavate the boat itself, he says, doesn't matter much.

Mr. MA HAIZAO (Curator, National Museum of Chinese History): (Through translator) We don't have a definite schedule yet. But I am confident that the South China Sea Number One will one day appear before the eyes of the world. There's no question about that.

KUHN: Archaeologists believe the ship sailed down China's southeast coast, stopping at major ports to take on crates of porcelain, gold ornaments, iron cooking woks and other merchandise. It was probably en route to Indonesia when it sank for unknown reasons.

In the 13th century, porcelain was hi-tech stuff and China had a monopoly over it. Guide, Liu, points to one piece of porcelain in a museum display case.

Ms. JINXIU: (Through translator) This wide-mouthed vessel is different from what we use in China. This leads archaeologists to believe that Southeast Asian peoples used these to hold pepper and other spices. Foreign merchants may have come to China and had these vessels made to order for export to Southeast Asia.

KUHN: In other words, China was exporting its wares around the world some eight centuries before Apple started making iPhones here.

Liu Wensuo is an archaeologist at Sun Yat-sen University in the provincial capital, Guangzhou. He says that the South China Sea Number One may yield clues about the Maritime Silk Road, which connected China to India, Africa and Europe as early as 1,400 years ago.

Professor LIU WENSUO (Anthropological Studies, Sun Yat-sen University): (Through translator) The greatest significance of the Silk Roads is that they remind us that the world's peoples have never been as isolated from each other, or on as tense terms as we might think. At least, due to the profit motive, people-to-people exchanges have existed continuously.

KUHN: Liu adds that China has always been, first and foremost, a continental power with a somewhat inward-looking and authoritarian character. But the Maritime Silk Road, he notes, remained a vital East-West conduit, not just for trade and transport, but also for ideas and beliefs.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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