A gold earring and a silver ingot recovered from the site Photo: Courtesy of the Pengshan Publicity Office
An iron spear tip Photo: Courtesy of the Pengshan Publicity Office
A silver ingot recovered from the site Photo: Courtesy of the Pengshan Publicity Office
Excavators work at the Jiangkou Sunken Silver Site in Southwest China's Sichuan Province. Photo: Courtesy of the Pengshan Publicity Office
One autumn day in 1646, 1,000 ships carrying treasure belonging to the "King of the West" sank in the Minjiang River during a naval battle. Its owner, defeated, fled for his life, hoping that one day he could return for his treasure. However, he was killed before he could realize his dream. The treasure and its location soon passed into local legend, until 2005 when the discovery of seven silver ingots proved that the story of the King of the West's treasure was more than just a folk tale.
On Monday the Sichuan Provincial Archaeology Institute announced that several major discoveries have been made at the Jiangkou Sunken Silver Site in Southwest China's Sichuan Province since excavation began on January 5.
The underwater excavation of the section of the Minjiang River that runs through Jiangkou township in Meishan is being jointly carried out by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage's (SACH) National Center of Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute. The team estimates that the excavation will be completed by the end of April.
Despite the name, there is much more at the Sunken Silver Site than just silver.
Experts have so far unearthed more than 10,000 square meters of the site and brought to light more than 10,000 artifacts, including gold and silver ingots, coins and accessories, according to a press statement a local publicity office sent to the Global Times on Monday.
"The class, number and the types of the relics recovered, especially those made of precious metal, have been something rarely seen in archaeological discoveries in China in recent years," Gao Dalun, head of the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, said at the press conference.
Gao hailed the discovered relics' significance for the study of local Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) history.
Moreover, the centuries-long discussions about whether tales of the King of the West's treasure did exist can finally be put to rest.
Truth behind the legend
Archaeological experts have determined that the relics belonged to Zhang Xianzhong (1606-1647), leader of a late Ming Dynasty peasant uprising who took over Chengdu, now the modern capital of Sichuan Province, and proclaimed himself King of the West in 1644. Experts also point out that the treasure lends credence to reports from the time that Zhang's peasant army looted and slaughtered its way across the region.
"We believe the items found at the site could have belonged to local aristocratic ladies," Liu Zhiyan, co-leader of the project and also director of the Institute's Center of Underwater Cultural Heritage, said in an interview with China Central Television (CCTV) on Sunday.
"According to historical records, Zhang's army lacked a reliable source of income after years of involvement in wars in the cities of the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River," Liu explained. "These relics could be proof that he looted locals as he traveled in order to obtain the money he needed to keep his army going."
According to Gao, the discovery of weapons, such as iron-made swords and spears, also showed that the site was the former battlefield for a battle between Zhang and Yang Zhan, the former Ming general who ambushed Zhang's convey as it transported the stolen relics down the Minjiang River in 1646.
High tech example
Legends about the treasure have circulated around Jiangkou for centuries. While the occasional discovery of Ming period relics attracted the curious and other treasure hunters to the region from the 1950s to the 1990s, it wasn't until 2005, when seven silver ingots were discovered, that the search for the treasure began in earnest.
While this search for treasure led to many non-official discoveries by locals and even the establishment of a huge illegal trafficking ring, due to the difficulties in excavating the riverbed, official recovery work was not able to begin until this year.
"The site has been a great concern for local and provincial relic administrations over the past few decades," said Gao. "But before the launch of the project, there was a huge workload that had to be taken care of that requires cooperation between departments and the preparation of needed resources, such as equipment and a budget. Judging by what we have achieved over the past two months, our preparations were very efficient."
The project is the province's first underwater excavation. It is also the first time that weiyan, or cofferdams, have been used for excavation in China. Liu explained at the press conference that the cofferdams enabled his team to seal off an area of the river. Once the water was pumped out from these sealed areas, his team could then recover the relics from the mud.
Liu also pointed out that the use of advanced technology such as metal-detection technology and radar during the excavation has established a foundation that similar projects can follow in the future.
1950s to 1990s
Relics are occasionally found along the tidal flats of the Minjiang River
Seven silver ingots are found during a water-diversion project in Jiangkou township
A larger amount of relics, including a gold seal, are discovered during a construction project along the Minjiang River
Local police announced they have cracked down on 328 cases of illegal trafficking of cultural relics retrieved from the river
January 5, 2017
The SACH and the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute begin their underwater excavation project