Discovering Asia's ceramic development

The 'royal gifts' on the Royal Nanhai

Cross section of hull showing 'secret compartment'The protruding keel of the Royal Nanhai was covered with transverse planks, adding a cargo floor below the main deck. One space next to the keel contained a number of unusual artefacts. The space could only be reached after offloading all other cargo, so it may have been the ship's 'safe'.

The objects in this hidden compartment were not regular trade goods:

Seal: views of side and base
see photo

The 'royal seal'
This bronze seal, of a size to be grasped in the fist, has the shape of an elephant. The seal's impression is a hare inside two concentric rings.

Only royalty and high-ranking officials carried bronze seals in the early Ming dynasty. Royal seals were given to friendly rulers as evidence of political affiliation, to scare off aggressors. Deceased Chinese emperors were buried with their seal to avoid misuse. Ordinary seals were made of soapstone or jade, and could be resurfaced to change the name. Royal seals were permanent.

Ivory sword handle
see detail

Ivory-handled sword
This solid ivory sword handle was accompanied by a 50cm line of oxide stain in the sand, assumed to have been from the corroded blade. Few people could have afforded or been entitled to carry such a delicate sword. It could have belonged to a high-ranking officer, but the location tells us that it was not to be used during the voyage.

Lacquer  box
see box uncovered

Imperial lacquer box
Imperial lacquer ware was made from very thin woven bamboo, covered in hundreds of layers of lacquer, of alternating red and black. Once incised, the fine layers of red and black can be seen in the cuts. Lacquer products were made in many places in China, but this type was made only at imperial factories.

Lu Dong Bin bowl
see interior
Lu Dong Bin bowl
This bowl shows one of the eight Chinese immortals, Lu Dong Bin, with his famous sword on the back. Lu Dong Bin was one of two great swordsmen in Chinese history. According to mythology, he achieved incredible feats - sexual and otherwise.
Blue-and-white covered box Vietnamese covered box
Vietnamese blue-and-white ceramics were scarce in the mid-15th century. The Royal Nanhai carried two similar covered boxes in the hidden compartment. Although made in Vietnam, they could have been procured in Thailand, as the two countries had a close trading relationship.

Why these valuable objects were together in the hidden compartment is a fascinating question. We suspect they were royal gifts.

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