The Nanhai will be towed to a $20 million museum built to house it in Guangdong.

 

It will be placed in a tank dubbed the "crystal palace" with the same water temperature and pressure that it experienced on the seabed.

  

The museum is expected to open by the end of next year and visitors will be able to watch excavation of the ship from the silt encrusting it through windows on the sides of the tank.

 

It is estimated that the full excavation of the vessel could take years.

   

Rare evidence

 

More than 4,000 gold, silver and porcelain containers have been found on the Nanhai, one of the biggest and oldest merchant ships ever recovered in China, Xinhua, the official news agency, said.

   

Also discovered were 6,000 copper coins from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), when the boat was built. Archaeologists believe they might find tens of thousands more artefacts.

   

The Nanhai could provide evidence of a "Marine Silk Road" linking China's Guangdong and Fujian provinces to Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe - similar to the better-known, overland Silk Road stretching across central Asia into Europe.

   

"The 'Marine Silk Road', like the ancient Silk Road which connected China with south, west and central Asia and Europe, was also a bridge linking Eastern and Western cultures," Huang Zongwei, professor at Guangdong's Sun Yat-Sen University, said.

   

"But evidence for existence of the route has been rare," he said.