ICMM visits China and Nan Hai No.1 Ship

The post-congress tours for the ICMM 2015 Congress in Hong Kong, gave the opportunity for delegates to visit museums in mainland China as well as Macao and Hong Kong.  A particularly memorable trip took us to museums in both Guangzhou and Yangjiang in the Guangdong province of southern China.

ICMM delegates at the Maritime Silk Road Museum at Hayling Island, Yangjiang, China 

Christopher Dobbs, ICMM’s Chair of the Maritime Archaeology Committee reports:

“I was particularly keen to visit the Maritime Silk Road Museum on Hayling Island near Yangjiang as the museum concept is one of the most fascinating that I have ever come across.  The general idea is to celebrate the great Chinese trade routes of the past, but to illustrate this, they raised a well preserved junk from the bottom of the sea, Mary-Rose-style, and placed it in a purpose-built tank the size of an Olympic swimming pool as the centrepiece of the museum.  But they didn’t raise the ship empty after excavation, as we raised the Mary Rose, they raised it complete with all its contents still buried in the muds that covered it and with the seabed itself for a few metres around the ship.  Imagine pushing an enormous shoebox (with no base) down into the seabed around a shipwreck, then digging around the outside of the shoebox enough to slot in a floor and then raising the whole package.  That is what they achieved.  This package is now in the museum and visitors can see it being excavated.  I first visited the museum in 2010 when the ship was still underwater and it was tantalising to think of this ship, still in a box in the centre of the swimming pool”.


Nan Hai No.1 shipwreck during excavation inside the Museum

Pottery still stacked between the bulkheads in the hold

Dry excavation

As an archaeologist who appreciates the advantages of excavating underwater, Chris is sad that they chose to excavate it ‘dry’, as in this controlled environment they could have taken the techniques of working underwater to new heights (depths?). But it has allowed them to carry out very frequent scanning of the site from an overhead gantry so the recording should again be ground-breaking for a wreck site.  

By extending his visit to the museum over a few days after the congress tour Chris was able to witness the excavations close up and also exchange many ideas both with museum staff, the excavation team and a group of Chinese museum professionals who were attending a local workshop in the museum.  

Chris sums up the experience “To me the museum visit to see Nan Hai No.1 sums up the whole spirit of the ICMM 2015 Congress in Hong Kong and China that was subtitled ‘Connections’. There is so much that we can learn from each other internationally, and establishing connections with our colleagues at maritime museums around the world will help us all to develop and improve our own individual museums”.


ICMM President, Steve Wright, being interviewed for Chinese television during the visit

Recovery and analysis of remains from the Battle of Iquique

The Naval Battle of Iquique took place in May 21st 1879, during the War of the Pacific – also known as the “Nitrate War” – in which Chile fought against Peru and Bolivia. The old Chilean wooden corvette Esmeralda and the schooner Covadonga were maintaining the blockade in the port of Iquique, while the big forces moved to El Callao to fight against the Peruvian fleet. However, both fleets at sea failed to see each other, so the armored ships Huascar and Independencia arrived in Iquique and took by surprise the Chilean ships.

Acoustic image of the wreck of Esmeralda, showing the place where the skull was found (Aft, port side)

The Independence chased the Covadonga near the shore, making her to go aground in shallow water. The Esmeralda fought bravely against the Huascar despite the unequal forces and she refused to surrender. During this epic battle three quarters of the Esmeralda crew died, including her commander, Arturo Prat. She finally sank with her flag still flying. This action was a serious blow to the Chilean people, and Commander Prat became the biggest hero in the country, and his crew was honoured for their fight.

This famous action is why Esmeralda is by far the most important wrecked ship in Chile.

Following a request by the Chilean Navy, in April 2010, an archeological expedition was made to the shipwreck site, by a specialised enterprise named ARKA. In charge of the underwater survey was archeologist Diego Carabias, with the support of the Quintay Marine Investigation Center from the Andres Bello University. All involved in this underwater expedition collaboration donated their services free of charge. 

The main purpose of this expedition, authorised by the National Monuments Council, was the recovery of a skull seen in a previous expedition. This became an important procedure, since it was the first time human remains were found in the Esmeralda. The decision to recover these remains was made due to the poor condition of the corpse

  The Esmeralda skull before conservation

Once the skull was recovered, a conservation procedure was begun in the ARKA’s campus. From there the skull was sent to the Anthropology Department of the University of Chile. Here, experts made studies to gather as much information as possible. Through a computerised axial tomography, scanner 3D laser, and some other tests, the experts tried to learn the skull's morphology, health, way of life and even its identity. Establishing the identity is technically impossible without identifying a possible subject through a search for a living descendant through the female line. It was possible to positively conclude the skull belonged to one of the crew members in 1879. 

Currently the skull is in the safekeeping of the National Maritime Museum with the possibility of future DNA studies to learn its identity. 


(Left) The Esmeralda skull after conservation.  (Right) Cristián Del Real, Director of the National Maritime Museum, receiving the skull from Loredana Rosso, Director of the Valparaiso’s Natural History Museum

In 2017, during the commemoration of the Naval Battle of Iquique, and with the President of the Republic and the highest national authorities present, the skull will be placed in the National Navy Monument, in Valparaiso, where it will rest next to the remains of Arturo Prat and twenty one other heroes. 

Underwater archaeology in German Rivers


A collection of several logboats stored in the basement of a local museum in southern Germany   (Picture by Lars Kröger 2014)

Finds are causing trouble for regional museums

The usage of rivers as waterways has a long tradition in Germany. Currently we are aware of over 800 logboats and circa 120 planked vessels found in German rivers and lakes. The oldest date from the 7th millennium BC, but most of the finds are from the post Roman era. Like many other archaeological objects, a great number of vessels have not been found during regular underwater or land excavations, but by sport divers or on construction sites. Taking the river Main in central Germany as an example, 118 logboats have been discovered in the last 100 years, but only one has been documented in situ under water. The rest have mostly been brought to the surface by sand digging companies. In the expectation of a prehistorical age (almost all of them are in fact mediaeval), the finds have been set aside and given to local museums, which are often run by groups of volunteers. Due to a lack of awareness of modern conservation methods and the lack of proper presentation space, some museums contain collections of up to a dozen vessels in their basement, in some cases having even forgotten their existence (see photo). Early attempts to save finds by reburial in the water were carried out in the 1970s, but due to flooding, these finds did not always survive, or their current status is unknown.

Helping local museums

Thanks to two research projects at the University of Bamberg and the German Maritime Museum, undocumented finds at the river Main have been sampled for dendrochronological analyses, documented and studied. A GIS based data base for all archaeological inland vessels in central Europe is in preparation and several regional museums have been supported in the attempt to present their objects in a modern way and within a new historical context. A best practise system in cooperation between local volunteers surveying inland waters, the department for heritage management and the experts for inland shipping has been installed to preserve as many objects as possible for the public and for research. It is also conjecturable that other regions have the same situation and many finds from rivers and lakes are stored unknown and in a bad state of preservation in the basements of local museums waiting to be brought back to the light. 

Lars Kröger M.A. Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum (German Martitime Museum)

Maritime archaeology in the great museum of the sea

The oceans, lakes and rivers arguably comprise the greatest maritime museum on the planet, given tens of thousands of years of human interaction.  These waters have been the source of nourishment, a highway for migration, trade and war, and over the past century, an arena where exploration now delves into their depths rather than crossing them to reach other lands.

To that end, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S. is aquatic counterpart to the better-known NASA as America’s ocean science agency.  Whether through the work of its Coast Survey (which dates to 1807), the National Marine Fisheries, or the more recent Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, NOAA has been engaged in the art and science of delving into the ocean for decades.

One part of NOAA also manages special ocean places within the territorial waters of the United States that have been set aside as marine protected areas, specifically known in the US as National Marine Sanctuaries.  There are fourteen areas in the National Marine Sanctuary System, on every coast and among the Pacific Islands.  In addition to endangered species, coral reefs, and important pelagic and benthic species, the sanctuaries also encompass maritime heritage.  This ranges from drowned ancient shorelines lost to sea level rise at the end of the last great Ice Age, internationally and nationally significant ocean highway routes, fishing grounds and banks, and more than four thousand known shipwrecks.

Maritime heritage program

NOAA’s maritime heritage program works within the waters of the sanctuaries and monuments, as well as beyond, to explore, discover, document, protect and interpret the human history that they encompass.  In this way, we do our bit to be good public stewards as well as the curators and educators of the great museum of the sea.  The key took we bring to the job is not the technology we employ – rather, it is the application of archaeology as the scientific discipline we practice to apply a conservation ethic to the heritage resources that each sanctuary was designated to protect.

While at times our work involves excavation and recovery, most notably with the 1862 wreck of the ironclad warship USS Monitor.  The first sanctuary, it was designated in 1975.  Selective recovery of key elements of the ship led to an ongoing partnership with the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, where conservation, study and display at the Monitor Center will continue for decades and at a cost that will exceed $50 million US.  Understandably, while it was deemed important to do limited recovery of USS Monitor, this is not an approach we take with all 4,000 (or more) of the wrecks that we also administer on behalf of the public.

A significant wreck find

The recent discovery of an important modern wreck in the waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off California’s Golden Gate and the port of San Francisco highlights the fact that there are diverse “exhibits” in the great museum of the sea that the various sanctuaries help display and interpret.  It also is an example of how many of the wrecks are more than historic artifacts – they are memorials, and they are also part of the marine ecosystem.  The story of USS Conestoga, whose loss with 56 of its crew was one of the great mysteries in the history of the U.S. Navy, is a tale that resonated with a national and international audience when we announced its discovery in the sanctuary in March 2016. The news of the discovery brought closure to 56 families, reintroduced the story of a larger public, and underscored why sanctuaries – and maritime museums – are dedicated to the task of preserving maritime history both in museum galleries and at the bottom of the ocean. 

James P.  Delgado, PhD, Director of Maritime Heritage, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Member, ICMM Maritime Archaeology Committee

USS Conestoga (Picture: Naval history heritage command)

The Discovery of USS Conestoga

On a quiet scientific survey in the fall of 2014, one of the great mysteries of the U.S. Navy was solved.  The discovery of a deteriorating hulk of a ship in just 189 feet of water, 27 miles outside of San Francisco’s Golden Gate resolved the question of what had happened, and where lay the wreck of USS Conestoga, one of only 18 U.S. Navy ships that disappeared, never to be seen again in the years before World War II.  On March 25, 1921, Conestoga had departed Mare Island Navy Yard with orders to proceed to Pearl Harbor.  From there, Conestoga would steam to American Samoa to take up duties as Station Ship in that distant South Pacific outpost.  Passing out of the Golden Gate that afternoon, the tug and 56 men never reached Pearl Harbor.  A garbled radio message, a battered, drifting lifeboat discovered by a passing steamer off Mexico’s coast, and a single life vest with the lost tug’s name found cast up on a California beach were the only clues.  Two extensive searches by sea and air failed to find any trace of Conestoga through the summer of 1921.  

The survey that ultimately discovered the wreck was part of a systematic scientific quest to learn more about what lies on the seabed and in the waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the Central California Coast.  The sanctuary is believed to contain the wrecks of some 400 lost ships.  Since 2014, the maritime heritage program of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked to locate some of these ships based on both archival records and sonar targets revealed by seabed mapping by NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.


No historically recorded wreck

One of the first targets to be investigated was a shipwreck that lay 3.1 nautical miles off Southeast Farallon Island first identified by a 2009 sonar survey.  For whatever reason, that specific patch of ocean had not been sonar surveyed previously.  The 2014 maritime heritage expedition decided to investigate the target because it lay where no historically recorded wreck was “supposed” to be.  As the images of what gradually was revealed to be a steel-hulled, riveted steam tug were relayed to the surface as a remotely operated vehicle traversed the wreck, the “mystery tug” sparked a quiet investigation that soon determined that this was a ship supposedly lost 2,000 nautical miles away.  A 3-inch/50 caliber single purpose gun and other features on the wreck confirmed the wreck was USS Conestoga.  Rather than lying off the coasts of either Hawaii or Mexico, where the Navy had focused the 1921 searches, Conestoga had foundered within a day or two of passing out the Golden Gate.

The ship is found but not all the answers

A subsequent mission to the wreck in the fall of 2015 with the Navy learned more about the wreck but did not conclusively find the answer to why the fleet tug had been lost.  We surmise that Conestoga foundered in the face of gale-force winds and heavy seas after turning back in what may have been a desperate run to the closest shelter, a tiny anchorage for the lighthouse and a Naval radio station on Southeast Farallon.  We will never know all the facts, but for the families of the crew, what we have heard, 95 years after the disappearance of the ship and all on board, is that in answering at least the question of where they are, we have brought for them a measure of resolution and peace.

Watch the video about the discovery of USS Conestoga – click here

History of USS Conestoga 

Conestoga I was built for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company by the Sparrow's Point Shipyard of the Maryland Steel Company in Baltimore to tow coal barges. The tug was launched on Friday, November 12, 1903. Maryland Steel delivered Conestoga to the railroad owner on February 6, 1904. Conestoga hauled coal along the coast to keep the railroad running. According an article in the trade journal Marine Engineering in 1904, "These tugs are under steam, with but short intermissions, for months at a time. As soon as they bring one tow of barges into port another one for the return trip is assembled and the tug boat starts out to sea with only a few hours' delay for coaling and taking on provisions and stores."

Conestoga joins the Navy

With the outbreak of World War I and United States' subsequent entry into the conflict, the U.S. Navy purchased Conestoga in September 1917. The Dictionary of American Fighting Ships briefly notes Conestoga's naval career:

“Assigned to the Submarine Force, Conestoga carried out towing duties along the Atlantic coast, transported supplies and guns, escorted convoys to Bermuda and the Azores, and cruised with the American Patrol Detachment in the vicinity of the Azores. At the end of the war she was attached to Naval Base No. 13, Azores, from which she towed disabled ships and escorted convoys until her arrival at New York 26 September 1919. She was then assigned to harbor tug duty in the 5th Naval District at Norfolk. Ordered to duty as station ship at Tutuila, American Samoa, Conestoga underwent alterations and fitting out at Norfolk, and cleared Hampton Roads 18 November 1920 for the Pacific. Arriving at San Diego 7 January 1921, she continued to Mare Island 17 February for voyage repairs. Conestoga put to sea from Mare Island for Samoa 25 March 1921. No further word was ever received from the ship or from her crew of 56. A lifeboat with the letter "C" on the bow was located by the steamship Senator 17 May 1921 in 18°15' N., 115°42' W. but a thorough search of the islands in the vicinity by all available naval and air forces, could locate neither men nor wreckage. Conestoga was declared lost with all her crew 30 June 1921.”