Builders unearth 'ancient shipyard of China's Columbus'
Zheng He, China's most famous maritime explorer, and his "Treasure Fleet" plied the oceans during the early 15th century
Experts estimate that a construction site in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, where hundreds of shipbuilding tools have been unearthed, contains the remains of a shipyard that built vessels for one of China's greatest navigators, Zheng He
Construction workers in Nanjing have unearthed what experts believe could be an ancient shipyard that supplied vessels to a legendary explorer known as "China's Columbus".
The Longjiang Shipyard helped build the fleet of Zheng He, a eunuch admiral whose epic voyages in the early 15th century made him China's most celebrated maritime voyager.
The admiral's "Treasure Fleet" – a gigantic navy with junks that had up to nine masts and were sometimes 400ft long – carried cargos of porcelain, silk and tea as far afield as Africa until the emperor pulled the plug on China's maritime ambitions following Zheng's death.
"It was a unique armada in the history of China – and the world – not to be surpassed until the invasion fleets of World War I sailed the seas," Louise Levathes wrote in When China Ruled the Seas, a book on the period.
Zheng He's armada was partly built at the Longjiang Shipyard in Nanjing, China's then capital, around 160 miles west of Shanghai. At its peak its docks were home to an army of between 20 and 30,000 shipbuilders who came from as far afield as Hunan and Guangdong provinces, according to Ms Levathes.
A full size replica of Zheng He's treasure ship at the site of the shipyard where original ship was built in Nanjing (Alamy)
However, the Yangtze River shipyard was lost under Nanjing's urban sprawl as it swelled into today's city of nearly four million residents. That began to change in September last year when a local antiques collector got word that workers on a riverside building site had unearthed and then sold what they thought was a large door.
Wang Shiqing, the collector, tracked the door down and discovered it was actually the rudder of an "ancient ship".
Subsequent excavations in the same area uncovered what are believed to be iron anchors and shipbuilding tools such as axes, stone hammer, nails and knives.
Items unearthed at the construction site in Nanjing
"When I first saw these shipbuilding tools I realised that this was not your average archaeological site," Mr Wang told Nanjing's Jinling Evening Post. "It is very likely to be an ancient shipyard."
Speaking to The Telegraph on Monday, Mr Wang said: "I am 80 per cent sure that this is the site of the Longjiang Shipyard but we still need to wait for the results of its excavation."
Zheng He was born in what is today Yunnan province in 1371. He rose to prominence under the Yongle emperor, the Ming Dynasty's third ruler, and made seven naval expeditions into the Indian Oceanwith his 27,000-sailor team between 1405 and his death in 1433.