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Slide Show

Porcelain selection from the Sadana Island Shipwreck would have fetched a
fortune on the market in the 18th century and today.

Chinese Export Porcelain in the Red Sea
By Cheryl Ward, Ph.D.

(Click on any thumbnail to see it full-size.)

CHINAWARE 300 to 350 chests. Tis impossible to give particular or full Instructions for providing this Article...One General Rule must always be observed, and that is, never to pack a peice of Ware that hath the figure of Humane Species, or any Animal whatsoever, and as formerly the Color'd ware prevailed, so it is more probable that it still doth, the red and gold used to be most in esteems, & three quarters of the colour'd Sortments with one quarter of blew & white was the customary package of the whole parcel.

So wrote an officer of England's famed East India Company in the fall of 1724, giving instructions to the men who would buy porcelain fired in South Chinese kilns to trade at the port of Mocha in Yemen for an even more highly valued luxury-coffee. Independent scholar Richard Kilburn shared this letter to the supercargo of the Princess Amelia in the archives of the East India Company with me. Richard immediately saw how closely the letter described the cargo of a shipwreck we were excavating off Egypt's Red Sea coast.

Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) staff first visited the Sadana Island shipwreck in 1994 after hearing about it from several sport divers and seeing pieces of Chinese porcelain in Hurgada dive shops. The ship sank at the base of a coral reef in more than 100 feet of water, and today lies mostly empty after two seasons of excavation. We found several different types of porcelain on our first visit-brown glazed coffee cups, brilliant cobalt blue dishes with peony sprays, and dishes with odd blue splashes of glaze in large fields of white.

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Preliminary research suggested that the porcelain dated to 1640-70, and that it was of a type specifically designed for the Middle Eastern market. Just as Chinese porcelain factories created special shapes and designs for European or American markets, so they catered to Middle Eastern customers. Religious and cultural injunctions against the representation of human and animal figures meant that most porcelain sold in Islamic markets featured floral designs. The Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Istanbul offers the closest comparative collection for the Sadana porcelain; many pieces are virtually identical.

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Like the cargo instructions for the Princess Amelia, the Sadana porcelain cargo is mixed. About a quarter of the excavated porcelain is decorated solely with cobalt blue underglaze. About 200 large, blue-and-white dishes feature a floral motif on the interior and two bare branches on the exterior measure. These dishes are either 34.4 cm or 37.8 cm in diameter (about 17"). Modern Arabic speakers often call these bakdounis, or 'parsley' dishes, but Western porcelain specialists call them peony scroll dishes.

Most of these dishes came from low in the hull just forward of midships where coral-covered stacks of up to 20 dishes could weigh more than 100 pounds. Getting to study the original packing methods and order is vital to understanding how the cargo came to be on the ship-unlike a number of salvaged porcelain cargoes from Pacific waters, the Sadana collection came from 'broken' lots rather than homogenous boxes of a single design.

View of a portion of the wreck as sits on the seafloor. The round shapes are
porcelain dishes 38 cm/17 in. in diameter.

Many different 'hands' can be seen in the glazed patterns. Because archaeologists and art historians often study the variations in a pattern to look for stylistic change over time, the Sadana collection will help identify variations within the type at a precisely known date. We already know that our dishes date nearly a century later than we first suspected (see Dating below).

We have even more 'Chinese Imari' wares than blue-and-white. The Chinese imitated a Japanese style of decoration, using red, gold, and other colored enamels on top of a cobalt blue underglaze after the piece was fired. The striking and elaborate Imari wares cost at least twice as much as pieces decorated with blue alone. Our problem was in discovering the original decoration schemes for the Sadana porcelain because almost all the Sadana Island porcelains had lost their brilliant enamel colors to the unrelenting erosion of the sea.

Luckily, our artist Netia Piercy knew that even though enamel colors rarely remain on porcelain from the sea, patience and raking light can work wonders. It is possible to trace the original location of colored enamels on the porcelains because the overglaze lasts long enough to protect the fired white surface from the effects of salt water. This kind of work must be done after the object has been desalinated and partially dried, so only some of the Sadana pieces have had their "ghosting" defined.

Intricate ghosting on several pieces again links the Sadana Island collection to examples from the vast Topkapi treasures. Some of our loveliest porcelains are bowls and a lid featuring day lilies and chrysanthemums in a framework of underglaze blue leaves, flowering grasses and lozenges identical in decoration but slightly larger than Topkapi examples. Large bowls with grape-leaf shaped medallions and spiraling blue panels originally glowing with emerald green, scarlet and gold also are common to both collections.

More than 70 smaller bowls and about 150 coffee cups also glowed with color. The most brilliant may have been some shallow dishes and plates of three sizes, so dully white that we called them "school plates" from ubiquitous cafeteria lunchrooms when they were excavated. Excruciating work by Netia Piercy revealed a delicate scrolling shell and floral border around a nosegay of spring flowers that originally may have been hot pink, green and yellow.

The last large group of porcelain objects is called monochrome glazed. In the Sadana collection, these are small cups without handles for drinking coffee. In addition to the many examples of Imari wares, some cups gleam darkly with an intense cobalt blue once highlighted by intricate gilt flowers. Rich brown glazed examples, some of which have a white quatrefoil medallion filled by an underglaze blue plum-family blossom, and cups glazed in pale green complete the catalog.


Traditional studies of Middle Eastern porcelain have been hampered by a lack of well excavated stratified sites from this relatively late date. One of the most difficult questions to address for the Sadana Island porcelain is its date. As noted above, first impressions pointed to a date in the middle 1600s. But as we looked more closely, we found that most specialists datee pieces found in context, cemented together and to the bottom of the ship, more than a hundred years apart.

This scenario isn't very likely because porcelain was an expensive, quick-moving luxury good. Although we seem to be dealing with middle-market operators who assembled their cargo from various sources (not directly from China), it is unlikely that the porcelain itself was made over such a long period and traded only after 1750. Because porcelain wares within this period rarely bear reign marks that could provide a precise date, we expect the Sadana Island ship's cargo eventually will help resolve new and existing questions about Qing Dynasty chronology.

Exciting finds in 1996 offer new evidence for dating the porcelain. An inscription on copper pot 6-48 includes the AH date 1169, equivalent to 1755/6 AD, and a second inscription was scratched onto a serving dish about 1764 AD. This is nearly a century later than scholars had expected some of the pieces to be made! What these dates ultimately suggest is that demand for particular styles in the Middle Eastern market remained steady over far longer periods that anyone suspected.

As more and more of the Sadana porcelain is cleaned, dried, and documented in the Alexandria Laboratory for the Conservation of Submerged Antiquities, we learn more and more about its past and its place within society. After being brought more than halfway round the globe from the clays of China to sink beneath waves over 230 years ago, the Sadana Island porcelain illuminates our understanding of custom, tradition, and desire in the lands washed by the Red Sea and beyond.