Mon, Feb 02, 2015 - Page 3 News List

Researcher leading dive into Taiwan’s underwater history

By Jake Chung  /  Staff writer

Prior to the invention of airplanes, the vastness of the sea had been the only means of travel between continents, and no one knew how many of human civilization’s treasures were buried under the waves, until the world began turning its attention to archeological treasures. Taiwan had not picked up on the trend until two decades ago, but even with the late start, Academia Sinica researcher Tsang Cheng-hwa (臧振華) has nonetheless been able to uncover the locations of 78 vessels over the past nine years.

According to a recent story by the Chinese-language United Daily News, Tsang becoming the founder of the nation’s systematic underwater research into archeological findings might have stemmed from the fact that he crossed over the Taiwan Strait along with his parents six decades ago.

Tsang was quoted by the newspaper as saying that even when he was young, he never felt seasick when onboard ships, adding: “My life’s calling might have been settled right then and there.”

An archeologist for more than four decades, Tsang has repeatedly called on the government to focus more on underwater archeological research, but received little response until nine years ago when the then-Cultural Affairs Council asked him to look into underwater treasures.

As the head of the research team, Tsang visited Penghu, Anping Harbor in Greater Tainan, the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and Green Island (綠島), discovering 78 vessels ranging from the Song Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, and ships sunk during World War II, the newspaper report said.

Mid to late Qing Dynasty cargo ships, a British steamboat that sunk in 1892 while carrying a full load of cricket players, to the remnants of the Kuang Ping — one of the first batch of Westernized ships built by China — were included in the findings, the paper said.

The ships were like keys that opened the doors to the histories of trade, migration, sailing and war in the region, it added.

Tsang was quoted by the paper as saying that marine archeology is far more difficult and complex than its land-based counterpart, as it necessitates the simultaneous derivation of information from multiple sources — disaster records, marine files, ships’ logs from local sailors and familiarizing oneself with natural environments, such as finding reefs — before arriving at a target area where a ship might have sunk.

Sunken ships are usually found in natural habitats for marine life, which are easy targets for fishermen who venture to them when needed, Tsang said. However, it was the act of divulging such locations that threatened fishermen’s sources of income, making them difficult to obtain, he added.

The presence of submerged reefs also presents great challenges to archeological endeavors, as it not only endangers survey ships, but reefs also help to form strong and unpredictable sea currents, the newspaper quoted Tsang as saying.

“However, to an archeologist the dangerous places often yield the greatest finds,” he said.

As age and physical conditions place limitations on being able to dive, Tsang currently teams archeological staff with professional divers, the report said, adding that Tsang also pays meticulous detail to educating members of his team on the ethics of handling archeological finds and stresses that no one should use findings to line their pockets and keep their work secret.

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