Brief Sampling of Evidence: The Ming Porcelain Artifacts

The search for Drake’s Nova Albion included work done at the macro level such as 38 ° latitude, George Davidson’s writings, period documents, and the Coast Miwok ethnography. More recently however, the research entered deeply into the micro realm with the study of 16th century Ming porcelain sherds* brought to the Point Reyes shores. These Drake artifacts, which are the earliest datable archaeological specimens of Chinese porcelains that were transported across the Pacific in Manilla galleons, have been found in Coast Miwok middens, mounds excavated by archaeologists. They are tangible proof of Drake’s landing and put him squarely at Drakes Bay within the Point Reyes National Seashore.

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This interpretive display of Drake and Cermeño sherds is on display at the Bear Valley Visitor Center at Point Reyes National Seashore, California.

At his 1579 landing at Point Reyes, Drake off-loaded his cargo to careen his ship, the Golden Hind. Included in the cargo were four chests of Ming porcelains that he had purloined from a Spanish ship in the Pacific. Broken remains of these porcelains have been excavated from Coast Miwok middens. There is no record of any of the porcelains reaching England, and this type of exotic good would have been notable. This suggests two possibilities as to their status. In California, Drake could have off loaded the porcelains when he careened his ship and then left them behind. Or Drake could have jettisoned them while trying to float and free the Golden Hind from a reef he ran onto in the East Indies five months later. Since the porcelains are not mentioned in the list of cargo and guns thrown overboard while on the reef, the most likely place to find them is at the California haven Drake called Nova Albion, New Albion. Drake’s crew exchanged gifts with the Coast Miwok for more than a month which indicates the crew left behind certain items. This is shown with the discovery of Drake’s porcelains.

Another source of Ming porcelain sherds are those that were left at the bottom of the Drakes Bay in 1595. This happened when Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño lost his ship, the San Augustin, as she dragged her anchors in a voracious storm. Sailing for Spain, he commanded this galleon loaded with Oriental trade wares which included Ming porcelains. Wrecked close to shore by the surf, the San Augustin continues to shed her Ming porcelain cargo from its position at the bottom of Drakes Bay. They are slowly, incrementally washed ashore by the surf from the remains of her 1595 wreck.

These sherds have been attested to and they have been viewed by numerous porcelain experts and scholars from outside of the Guild and from around the world. They include George Kuwayama of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Dr. Marco Meneketti of San Jose State University; and Dr. John A. Pope, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of (Oriental) Art. In addition to being displayed at the Smithsonian, England's Plymouth City Museum displayed Drakes Bay porcelains as the centerpiece of a special 1980 exhibit. In 1988, the University of California at Berkeley’s Lowie Museum of Anthropology showed an expanded version of the Smithsonian exhibit. Other distinguished scholars from Sweden and China have also examined the artifacts. Both sets of sherds are recognized and curated by the National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Using various disciplines, the sherds have been studied thoroughly, and all the evidence points to Drake unloading and leaving Ming porcelains at Point Reyes. It is another firm and key indicator of Drake’s 1579 New Albion landing. These porcelains reveal the story of Drake with the Coast Miwok people.

While more than one thousand artifacts from sixteenth-century explorers have been found at Drake’s Bay, only a handful of such objects have been found in other sites north of Mexico, all within a twenty-five-mile radius of Drake’s Bay. Despite over 100 years of considerable archaeological activity all along the West Coast, sixteenth-century European or Oriental artifact finds do not exist anywhere else in California, Oregon, or Washington.

The Guild has done significant work with these artifacts, not only in assessing the porcelains, but also in re-assessing and reviewing their findings. A total of four different agencies have been involved in finding the artifacts: University of California, Drake Navigators Guild, Santa Rosa Junior College, and San Francisco State College. From 1961 forward, much of the work was directed by Guild member Ed Von der Porten.

Some of the 1,000 plus artifacts are items such as iron ship spikes, a Japanese cup, and a small copper cone. Over 90 percent of these artifacts are Ming porcelain fragments of bowls, plates, cups, and vases. These studies are somewhat intricate, difficult, and revealing due to the additional presence of the 1595 wreck of Sebastiãn Cermeño’s wreck, the San Augustin, and its cargo of Oriental trade wares. However, the sherds from that wreck provided the curious contrast that led to investigations which eventually confirmed sherds from Drake’s 1579 cargo.

George Kuwayama, senior curator of Far Eastern Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, writes of this:

Drake abandoned his porcelain cargo or possibly traded it with Coast Miwoks in preparation for the trans-Pacific crossing. Most of Drake’s wares were early Kraak porcelains from Jingdezhen captured from Spanish ships off Panama.

The broken San Augustin’s lost cargo gives a different testimony telling of two separate cargos. Kuwayama continues:

The ceramics from the San Augustin contrasted markedly from those of the Golden Hind; mostly Fujian wares, some of Kraak type, which can be differentiated from the Jingdezhen Kraak examples by their generally poorer quality, paler blue color, and more casual execution. In addition, fragments of the cruder Swatow wares were found in the San Augustin group, while they were totally absent from the Golden Hind.

This expert’s remarks are based on solid and comprehensive research.

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These Cermeño sherds show the surf tumbled wear.

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These Drake sherds show they were off-loaded and never felt the surf.

The 1979 quadri-centennial anniversary of Drake’s voyage brought increased scholarly and public awareness of the Drake’s Bay research. As part of this, Clarance Shangraw, senior curator and porcelain specialist from the Aisan Art Museum in San Francisco was the first to note the distinct design, pigment, and quality differences of the assorted porcelains. He conducted an intensive study, and at the end of it he announced, “There are two distinct cargoes here, one from the late 1570’s and one from the mid-1590’s.” Drake was at Point Reyes in 1579 and Cemeño in 1595, and they are the only two sixteenth-century ships known to have been present at Point Reyes. This was an extraordinarily strong and suggestive correlation that required further investigation.

In addition to the historical analysis, archaeologist Ed Von der Porten noticed an intriguing difference in the porcelain sherds—one evident to the naked eye or under magnification. Some showed evidence of edge and surface abrasion from surf tumbling, traces of their rough journey from sea to land. The other group had clean bright surfaces and sharply broken edges; they never felt the sea, sand, or surf. They had to have transferred into Coast Miwok hands some way without being washed ashore. This was provocative and exciting evidence, further suggesting how the Coast Miwok came into possession of this second group—these were porcelains that never knew the rough surf actions. The date and conditions were right: they were from a cargo of off-loaded porcelains. The cargo had to be the Golden Hind.

Extraordinarily and relevantly, these two porcelain groups corresponded precisely to the two groups identified by Shangraw. Of course, these were subjective analyses, those of personal observation, interpretation, and conclusion. Additional investigation, that of an objective scientific analysis, would be valuable. It was done.

In June of 2013, Dr. Marco Meniketti, archaeologist from San Jose State University wrote of his x-ray fluorescence examination of the sherds. Using strong controls, Meneketti also examined the Drake and Cermeño sherds curated at Point Reyes National Seashore. The results, based on differences in their key elements, supported the findings of Von der Porten and Shangraw.

All three studies correlate the groupings of ceramics that indicate two different cargo sources. When combined, all three analyses point to Francis Drake and Cermeño present with Ming porcelains, each in unique circumstances and separate times. As concluded by Ray Aker and recorded by Michael Turner in his book, In Drake’s Wake, Volume 2, all the non-water worn sherds must be attributed to Drake and the water worn sherds attributed to Cermeño.

*The spelling, sherd, usually refers to a piece of broken pottery that was found in an archaeological site. Shard also refers to a similar broken piece of material like china, glass, ceramic. Even though the word sherd is generally preferred by archaeologists, the two words are interchangeable.

  • Aker, Raymond; Von der Porten, Edward (2010). Discovering Francis Drake’s California Harbor. San Francisco: Drake Navigators Guild.
  • Kuwayama, George (1997). Chinese Ceramics in Colonial Mexico. Honolulu: University of Hawaii
  • Meniketti, Marco (June 2013). "Preliminary Results of pXRF Testing of Porcelains from Sixteenth-Century Ship Cargos on the West Coast".Society for California Archaeology Newsletter. 47 (2): 17.
  • “Shard or Sherd”, Retrieved October 1, 2018.
  • Turner, Michael (2006). In Drake’s Wake Volume 2. United Kingdom: Paul Mould Publishing
  • Shangraw, Clarence; Von der Porten, Edward (1981).The Drake And Cermeño Expeditions' Chinese Porcelains At Drakes Bay, California 1579 And 1595. Santa Rosa, California: Santa Rosa Junior College.
  • Von der Porten, Edward (undated). A Summary of the Evidence For the Chronology of the Ming Porcelains At Drakes Bay. Unpublished paper from the Drake Navigators Guild files.