Trading Beyond Borderland: Shipwrecks and Ancient Chinese Export Porcelains with Dr. Tianlong Jiao

Published: Jan. 9, 2017
Gold item and early blue and white porcelain found at the Belitung Shipwreck

Dr. Tianlong Jiao, Joseph de Heer Curator of Asian Art at the Denver Art Museum presented the first in the CAS annual theme series for 2016-17, “Asian Borderlands.”  Dr. Jiao’s extensive research as an archaeologist and art historian illuminated the murky waters of maritime excavations. 

The study of Chinese export porcelain is not new, but maritime archaeology is. Officially, in China, it started with the formation of the National Conservation Center for Underwater Cultural Heritage (NCCUCH) in 1989.  This rapidly developing field is very important for re-examining, and better understanding history. The vast quantities of physical evidence extant and the range of quality among the materials found are shedding new light on world history.

In 1986, many items excavated from the Hatcher Shipwreck were sold at Christie’s Auction House Amsterdam. The Chinese government sent a delegation, but was unable to out bid private collectors for these items. This directly led to the formation of the NCCUCH, which is a multidisciplinary team of experts. They are charged with surveying, excavating and preserving underwater archaeology sites. 

Dr. Jiao shared images of the Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong, which moved an entire shipwreck indoors and then built the museum structure around it!  The Nanhai #1 Shipwreck, featured at this museum, is one of the earliest shipwrecks known.  It’s from the Song d. (960-1279) and its compartments are filled with porcelain, jewelry, gold and other precious goods.  The majority of ceramics from this site came from Fujian, which is a new scenario for historians to consider, as they previously thought all the export porcelain from this time period came from Jingdezhen.

An even earlier shipwrecks was a vessel from the Late Tang d. (923-937) now called, Belitung Shipwreck. It was a ship from Abbasid Iraq that brought goods to China. Although archaeologists are not certain what they would’ve brought to trade, possibly gold, silver, and spices; the ship, however, was returning home with some of the earliest known blue and white porcelains from kilns previously unrecorded in Hunan province. This area was later excavated and a museum was opened to feature those kilns. There were also bronze mirrors with inscriptions, which were only made for court. Examples of this type of mirror are extremely rare making these items alone an extraordinary find.

Although there are wonderful discoveries being made, there are also difficulties. These archaeological excavations are large-scale projects that take millions of dollars to undertake.  Some smaller countries have done joint ventures with private, foreign companies.  Then they pay the companies with a portion of the findings. This is controversial on many levels.  Also fishermen and others come to loot the sites when archaeologists are not there, making preservation of what remains in situ an extremely difficult task.

At these maritime sites, more and more material evidence of trade with Mexico and the Americas along with new motifs and designs that were only made for export are being unearthed.  From this evidence we can also see which kilns thrived at what time periods and how the production of porcelains for export shifted around the country.

Dr. Jiao also shared numerous European paintings in the Denver Art Museum collection with blue and white porcelains demonstrating how Chinese porcelains were used and prized abroad. 

During the question and answer session, a particularly interesting discussion of the Selden Map arose. This was a map created in the Ming d., around the 1620s, which was then donated to the Bodleian Library in 1659 by the London lawyer, Mr. John Selden. Robert Batchelor (an American) rediscovered the map in the library holdings in 2008. It is unique in that it is certainly Chinese in origin, yet China is not depicted at the center of the map, as is usually the case. 

More lively discussions and conversations took place among the more than 45 audience members during the reception. Undergraduate and graduate students, professors, university staff, CAS supporters, and even a few community members from Denver attended the event. Many participants spoke of the need for preserving these valuable underwater archaeological sites. 

*Note: Images are courtesy of Dr. Tianlong Jiao from his slide presentation.

Written by Carla Stansifer, CAS Event Coordinator