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The Sydney Cove

Chinese Porcelain

One of the most profitable items of cargo which was salvaged after the wreck and eventually sold at Port Jackson was a quantity of Chinese export porcelain. In total, only three chests of porcelain were salvaged, out of the considerable quantity which had initially been shipped. Thousands of porcelain fragments with a total weight of approximately 250 kg were removed during the archaeological excavation of the wreck. Most were recovered from the mainmast area.

Chinese export porcelain was traditionally decorated in a series of recognised motifs. These generally comprised highly stylised landscapes featuring the basic elements of mountains, islands, water, trees, houses boats and bridges. The composition of the landscape was manipulated so as to conform to the contour of the piece being decorated.

Collection of porcelain recovered from the wrecksite. Clockwise from top left: Typical stylised landscape depicted on a warming plate; Typical blue and white underglazed dinner plates; Porcelain wares; Typical piece of overglaze ceramics.

Whilst the majority of the porcelain was stored around the mainmast area and subsequently broken up when the vessel's upper structure collapsed into the hold, a number of intact pieces were retrieved from the stern area of the wreck.

Post excavation analysis of the recovered porcelain has identified a minimum of 25 varieties of decoration and vessel type. The identified types include teacups and saucers, dinner plates and warming dishes, nested sets of bowls along with some toiletry sets comprising a chamber pot, water flask and basin.

60% of the porcelain recovered during the project is of the underglazed blue and white variety, which is generally considered to be inferior in quality to the polychrome over glaze wares.

The remaining 40% of the porcelain recovered during the project is polychrome overglaze ware which is generally considered to be a high quality item. Due to the overglaze nature of the design application, these wares have suffered a far greater level of damage than the inferior underglazed blue and white varieties.

A publication by Mark Staniforth and Michael Nash, Chinese Export Porcelain from the Wreck of the Sydney Cove, provides further details.