Deep in the waters around Korea, treasure troves await

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Deep in the waters around Korea, treasure troves await


Visitors to the National Museum of Korea examine artifacts uncovered from the Sinan Shipwreck off Korea’s southwestern coast. The state of the objects from the 14th-century treasure ship is particularly good as the ship was partially buried in mud. The underwater archaeological exploration that went on between 1976 and 1984 was the first of its kind in Korea. Since then, Korea has excavated 13 more ancient shipwrecks, uncovering more than 100,000 priceless historical objects. [NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

It has been more than 30 years since Noh Han-seok last hunted for lost treasure on the ocean floor, but he still remembers the darkness.

“It was just pitch black everywhere,” he said, remembering the several years he spent exploring a sunken 14th century ship. “We couldn’t see anything, even 1 millimeter ahead of us, so we would have to grope our way and feel what’s there.”

As a member of the South Korean Navy’s elite Ship Salvage Unit (SSU), Noh began his first and only underwater archeological excavation in 1982, when he was just 21 years old.

He was part of the exploration of the so-called Sinan Shipwreck, as it was found in waters off Sinan County, South Jeolla, that took place between 1976 and 1984. Today, it’s considered the very first underwater archaeological excavation in Korean history.

At the time, the best divers from Korea’s Navy - usually the SSU or Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) - were mobilized to recover what would total 24,000 priceless artifacts from the ship. They also eventually salvaged the ship itself, which was 34 meters (111.5 feet) long and 11 meters wide.

Noh, who retired as a petty officer and also served as president of the SSU Comrade Association, is now 55 years old, but still has vivid memories of the dives, which were all between 20 and 25 meters.

“Today, I hear that high-tech equipment does 80 percent of the work, but back then we did everything with our bare hands,” he said. “Sometimes, you would look and look but still end up finding nothing, and with the air in your tank running out, you’d come up empty-handed.”

There was much to fear about those dives, Noh recalls. The absolute darkness and severe tidal currents made them physically challenging, but they also took a mental toll on the divers. Some experienced sudden and unexpected panic attacks underwater.

“It was a lot to battle with, but we also were full of pride,” he said.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the historic underwater archaeological expedition, and as Noh pointed out, Korea has come a long way.

There is now a ship and robot dedicated exclusively underwater explorations, and since the Sinan Shipwreck, there have been 23 more expeditions that have found 13 ancient ships.

The vast number of ships has to do with the fact that as a peninsular nation, maritime transportation has long been important to Korea. The Goryeo Dyansty (918-1392) was particularly known as a maritime power.

But historical records show that ships frequently sank, sometimes because of Japanese attack and other times because of violent tidal currents, particularly in Korea’s southwestern waters.

This suggests there are many more ships - and treasures - buried in the seabed waiting to be explored.

The Korea JoongAng Daily examined the past and the present of Korea’s underwater archaeological expeditions, as well as ongoing challenges in the field.


Korean archaeologists work to uncover underwater artifacts. [JOONGANG ILBO]

An unfinished journey

In June 1323, a ship left a port in today’s Ningbo, China, headed for Fukuoka, Japan.

The ship is thought to have contained dozens of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans sailors. At around 200 tons, it was possibly one of the largest merchant vessels of its time, and reportedly carried some of the most valuable trade items including ceramics, spices and rosewood, which was then considered a high-end lumber.

But the crew never made the fortune they were likely promised from the goods. In fact, they never made it to their destination at all.

As they passed through the waters off today’s Sinan County, located in the southwestern part of the country, the ship sank. It’s not clear why, but a storm is one strong possibility.

It took 650 years for the ship see light once again.

In August 1975, a Korean fisherman accidently netted six ceramic pieces, including a celadon vase. He showed them to his brother, who was a school teacher. The two decided to report the findings to the authorities, who determined that that the vase had been made in Longquan kilns in China during its Yuan Dynasty period (1271-1328).

News traveled quickly that there was a treasure ship in the waters, and treasure hunters who could dive flocked to the region for a piece of the action. But on Oct. 27, 1976, the government officially ordered them to stay away and began the nation’s first underwater excavation.

[It was not, however, the first time the government had combed the seas looking for a ship. In 1973, the Korean government attempted to find the famous “turtle ship” used during the Japanese invasion known as the Imjin War (1592-98) near Geoje Island, South Gyeongsang, but the efforts weren’t successful.]

The Sinan ship is now on display at the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage in Mokpo, South Jeolla.


Top: Between 1970s and 80s, Korea mobilized the best divers from the Navy for underwater excavations. Bottom: In recent years, the institute devoted to underwater excavations has been using a specially designed ship and robot. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Start of a history

To mark the 40th anniversary of the excavation, the National Museum of Korea in Seoul is holding a special exhibition on the Sinan wreck. Titled “Discoveries from the Sinan Shipwreck,” the exhibition contains a whopping 20,303 artifacts, giving attendees the sense they’re actually on the vessel itself.

“Of the 24,000 artifacts that have been excavated, only about 1,000 have been shown to the public in the past,” Yi Young-hoon, the museum’s director-general, said. “This comprehensive exhibition was organized to present as many artifacts as possible … so that visitors can get a deeper understanding of the nature of the ship as well as 14th century trade and exchange in East Asia.”

The ceramics are undoubtedly the best part of the exhibition, as about half of the artifacts uncovered, or 12,000, were Chinese celadon. There were also seven famous pieces of Goryeo celadon on the ship.

Historians say that Japan in the 14th century wasn’t able to make high-quality ceramics and instead imported them, often from China.

Another highlight is the Chinese coins. About one ton of coins is on display, from about 28 tons salvaged from the ship in total. Historians say that, similar to the ceramics, Japan lacked the techniques at the time to make the coins and so also imported them. Historical records also show that Japanese melted the coins to make Buddhist sculptures.

The exhibition also features artifacts illustrating what life onboard was like, including a board for janggi, an Asian game similar to chess; a knife and chopping board; a hat and a pair of geta, or traditional Chinese-Japanese shoes.

Aside from the sheer scale of the exhibition, the impeccable condition of the artifacts is also impressive. This, experts say, is due to the muddy seabed in Korea’s southwestern and western waters, which preserved both the ship and the items inside.

“Because wood dissolves in seawater, it’s rare to find such an old wooden boat,” said Lee Gwi-young, the director of the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage. “The Sinan ship survived because part of it was buried in the mud.”


Leader in Asia

All of the Korean institutions that today play a pivotal role in the nation’s underwater archaeology have their origins in the Sinan Shipwreck.

Then-President Park Chung Hee (1917-79) ordered a museum built nearby to house the relics, which led to the opening of the Gwangju National Museum in 1978.

In 1981, a temporary space was built in Mokpo for conservationists to work on the recovered relics. Thirteen years later, that space became the National Maritime Museum, and in 2009, the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage was also housed there to support future explorations. The institute received in 2012 a brand new ship, the Nurian, dedicated solely to underwater archeology, and since last year, it has been using a robot that boasts a high-tech sensor and camera, as well as the capability to collect data such as the depth and temperature of the water around wrecks.

Moon Whan-suk, the head of the institute’s underwater excavation and conservation division, said that the institute was essentially created thanks to the Sinan ship. He said the institute has been responsible for discovering more than 100,000 artifacts underwater thus far, and that three of those - all pieces of celadon - have been designated state treasures.

While there have been many items valuable enough to receive the designation, Moon explained that the title isn’t the institute’s priority.

“Of the 28 people in our division, 13 are licensed divers,” he said. “We are all very much hands on in all stages of the expedition, from excavation to conservation.”

Moon said he believes Korea is the leader in Asia when it comes to underwater archaeology, adding that the Chinese built a ship modeled after the Nurian and Japan is also working to set up a state-run entity similar to Korea’s that is exclusively for underwater archaeology.

Moon’s team is currently investigating the waters off Jindo County, South Jeolla. The exploration began in April and will continue until Oct. 28. “Two teams consisting of two divers go underwater simultaneously,” he said. “Each team consists of researchers from the institute as well as private divers. One team usually stays underwater for two to three hours.”

Low visibility

The waters off Jindo are notorious for their severe tidal currents, but it was a shortcut that ancient ships often took nonetheless. Today, however, the waters are better known for being so muddy as to offer nothing but darkness to those searching for treasure.

That murkiness poses physical challenges to underwater archaeologists, but it also presents an opportunity for thieves.

In 2013, the country was shocked to learn that two of researchers at the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage conspired with a private diver to steal a 33-centimeter (13-inch) piece of celadon dating from the Goryeo Dynasty from an excavation off Jindo. The low visibility in the waters meant that a diver could easily steal something without being noticed.

Since the incident, Moon said the institute has beefed up security, taking measures like installing body cameras on divers when they go underwater.

Aquatic theft is always something the institute worries about, but it can also lead to new discoveries. In fact, the reason Korean researchers learned of the treasure trove of artifacts around Jindo in the first place was because a ring of thieves were caught illegally excavating Goryeo celadon from the waters in November 2011.

Despite the government’s support, a lack of personnel is still a challenge to underwater archaeology in Korea. It has meant that excavations have mostly been restricted to the southwestern or western coasts, where there’s a better chance of finding ships because of their popularity as ancient trade routes and the muddy, preservative bottoms.

But critics say that the southern coast should also be explored because it too features a muddy bottom. There have also been calls to explore the eastern coast, particularly the waters near Yangpo Port in Pogang, which reportedly contains a mysterious bell.

Historians say it could be either the eighth-century Big Bell of Hwangnyong Temple or the Big Bell of Gameun Temple, both of which were lost at sea according to historical records. Searches for the bell took place three times thus far, by the Navy in 1980 and 1997 and then by the institute in 2013, all to no avail.

Journey ahead

Meanwhile, the government has planned several events in addition to the exhibition to celebrate the anniversary of Sinan excavation.

In Sept. 2, there will be international symposium on the wreck and underwater archaeology more generally at the National Museum of Korea. The current Sinan exhibition at the museum will be moved to the Gwangju National Museum from Oct. 25 to Jan. 30 of next year with some minor changes.

Separately, at the National Maritime Museum in Mokpo, there will be a special exhibition dedicated to underwater archaeology in Korea starting on Oct. 26. Here, the actual Sinan Shipwreck will be on display. In November, there will also be an exhibition of relics from a shipwreck from China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Further, another branch of the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage will open in Taean, South Chungcheong. Taean is an important spot for Korean underwater archeology because it was the center of a popular trade route during both Goryeo and the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Out of the 21 places where underwater expeditions have taken or are taking place, the waters off Taean account for seven.

Experts say treasures from shipwreck are uniquely important because they come with an entire context, including when and where they originated, as well as who used them and how.

“Just to have this many relics from one time period is rare,” said Kim Yeong-mi, the curator of the Sinan shipwreck exhibition at the National Museum of Korea.

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