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A full-size model of a "middle-sized treasure boat" (63.25 m long) of the Zheng He fleet at the Treasure Boat Shipyard site in Nanjing built ca. 2005.

Could Clues From the Ocean Floor Finally Lead to Zheng He’s Lost Treasure Ship?

A recent investigation off the coast of Sri Lanka is offering hope that the lost treasure ship of Zheng He, one of the most famous admirals in Chinese history, may finally be found.  This ship sank almost six centuries ago but newly found traces of evidence may finally lead the researchers to the sunken treasure ship.

The Immense Cultural Importance of Zheng He’s Fleet

As previously reported at Ancient Origins , Zheng He is one of the most famous admirals in Chinese history. He is best known for his treasure voyages. These voyages served to highlight the power and the wealth of the Ming Dynasty to the known world and were sponsored by the Ming emperor, Yongle, himself. The first voyage brought the Treasure Fleet to Calicut, southwestern India, where spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and pepper were purchased. Before reaching Calicut, the fleet traveled to several areas in Southeast Asia, including Champa (southern Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Malacca, and Java. On their return trip to China, the fleet stopped at Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

In 1407, the Treasure Fleet was back in China, laden not only with spices, but also with foreign envoys who came to pay homage and present tribute to the Ming Emperor. Between 1408 and 1433, six more treasure voyages were led by Zheng He. During these voyages, Zheng He negotiated trade pacts, fought pirates, dethroned a hostile king, and brought back more envoys and tributes to the Ming court.

Monument honoring admiral Zheng He. Melaka, Malaysia.

Monument honoring admiral Zheng He. Melaka, Malaysia. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Zheng He died in 1433, either in Calicut, where he decided to stay during his 7th voyage due to failing health, or on the return journey to China. Another suggestion is that he managed to return to China, and died some years later. Immediately after Zheng He’s death, the eunuch fell from favor, and most of the Chinese historical records about him and his voyages are said to have been destroyed. That means that a possible discovery of Zheng He’s lost treasure ship wouldn’t just be important from an archaeological point of view, but it would be extremely important for China’s cultural prestige.

This explains why the Chinese government has funded multiple research expeditions along the possible routes taken by Zheng’s fleet these past seven years, in an agonizing attempt to provide concrete proof of China’s maritime glory. The project in Sri Lanka is the only one still ongoing.

Newly Found Evidence May Lead to the Treasure

For the past two years a group of scientists and archaeologists funded by the Chinese government, has carried out several studies of the sea floor along the Sri Lankan coastline with the help of high-tech military-grade sensing equipment, hoping to spot the sunken treasure ship. As South China Morning Post reports , the desire of the researchers now is that the traces of evidence they have recently discovered will eventually direct them to their target: Zheng He’s lost treasure ship.

Zheng He's Treasure Ship. Model at Hong Kong Science Museum.

Zheng He's Treasure Ship. Model at Hong Kong Science Museum. ( Mike Peel /CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In an article posted on the website of the Institute of Acoustics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in October, the scientists announced that their latest examinations had revealed “positive results”, a statement which could imply that they have spotted possible shipwreck sites or even relevant artifacts. “The investigation is still at a primitive stage,” Professor Prishanta Gunawardhana from the department of archaeology at the University of Kelaniya and the lead researcher on the Sri Lankan side, told South China Morning Post . And continued, “A new study will take place in two weeks. We will use some advanced equipment brought over by our Chinese partners, including a synthesized aperture sonar system capable of producing extremely high-resolution images of underwater targets.”

New Mission Includes Top Experts

The new research project will be commanded by Professor Hu Changqing, director of the Shanghai Acoustics Laboratory at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. According to South China Morning Post , Hu has participated before in various military projects and developed many new technologies for the Chinese navy, including a passive sonar system that allows submarines to avoid dangerous sub-oceanic currents.  In order to avert ambitious treasure hunters, the participating scientists in the new mission offer reassurance that the accurate information of the research project has not yet been released publicity.

Map of the routes of Zheng He from 1404-1433 includes a visit to Sri Lanka

Map of the routes of Zheng He from 1404-1433 includes a visit to Sri Lanka ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Zhu Min, a researcher at the Institute of Acoustics in Beijing who knows a lot about the project, but is not involved directly in it, stated that China would provide a host of cutting-edge equipment for use in the mission, including Jiaolong, or Sea Dragon , a submersible that can operate at incredible depths of more than 7km. “If the water allows for the operation of an optical observation device, we can send the Jiaolong [which can carry up to three people] down for a close-up look at the wreckage and retrieve samples for laboratory analysis,” he said as South China Morning Post reported . He also added that if visibility was poor or currents made it too risky for a manned mission, the researchers could send down specialist deep sea robots to survey the site. “If the temperature and salinity are right, it’s possible the ship’s wooden structures could have survived for six centuries. The biggest challenge is to separate those from fake targets such as rocks or other man-made debris … [that have] outlines extremely similar to the remnants of a ship,” he concluded.

The hunt for the valuable shipwreck continues.

Top image: A full-size model of a "middle-sized treasure boat" (63.25 m long) of the Zheng He fleet at the Treasure Boat Shipyard site in Nanjing built ca. 2005. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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