Partnership to unearth Chinese expeditions

22 November 2005

More than 600 years ago, the Chinese admiral, Zheng He, embarked on some of the largest maritime expeditions the world had ever seen. Leading fleets of several hundred ships with thousands of men, he conducted seven journeys in the 1400s to India, East Africa and the Middle East. Debates rage in academic circles as to whether he may have also come upon Australia and the Americas.

Further knowledge of Zheng He's movements may be brought to light through collaboration between ocean science and technology researchers from Sydney University and China. Associate Professor Phil Mulhearn from the University's Ocean Technology Group (OTG) will work with Professor Zhang Shuying from the Shanghai Acoustics Laboratory (SAL) to search for remains of ships from the 15th century expeditions.

The scientists will begin by looking in Oman on the southeast Arabian Peninsula. "While we are not completely certain that a wreck exists there, Oman's steep rocky coastline makes it a likely spot for one or more of Zheng He's ships to have encountered problems," said Professor Mulhearn. He will use SAL's sophisticated sonar technology to map the seabed and search for the remains of ships. OTG is developing an ultrasonic device that can be pushed into the mud to detect buried artefacts.

The partnership is part of a wider initiative to promote collaboration between Australian and Chinese ocean technology researchers. Approximately 10 scientists from each country met last week at Sydney University and in Canberra at the Australian Academy of Sciences. Organised by Professor Mulhearn, Professor Ian Jones, also from the OTG, and Professor Zhang, the conference explored seabed mapping, sediment transport in coastal waters, and satellite and aircraft remote sending of coastal seas.

Many researchers are convinced of the mutual benefit that a closer liaison between scientists from Sydney and Shanghai might deliver. "The two port cities share similar water science issues," said Professor Liu Shuguang, from the Department of Geotechnical Engineering at Tongji University. Professor Liu studies coastal sediment transport, how sediment is displaced from large rivers into the sea, and he is hoping to work closely with Sydney researchers tackling parallel problems. "Human activities such as large scale development influence coastal erosion. Both Sydney and Shanghai are having to address this," he said.