Ran Zhang, of Durham University, discusses his recent paper ‘A Chinese Porcelain Jar Associated with Marco Polo: A Discussion from an Archaeological Perspective‘. This paper, written with Lin Meicun of Peking University, is freely available until January 1, 2018.

The 14th century visit to China of European Traveller Marco Polo has been well documented by his famed historical accounts, The Travels of Marco Polo. As claimed by himself, Marco Polo, highly influential in Yuan Mongolian Ruler’s courts, not only travelled across China from the north to south, but also served as an officer of the government salt monopoly in Yangzhou of south China for many years. As one of the earliest European travellers to China, Marco Polo has many unsolved mysteries. Many historians believe that he exaggerated his importance and experience in China, which has generated discussions and debates.

The ‘Marco Polo jar’ housed in the Treasury of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice (photograph by Lin Meicun).

But archaeologically there were few discussions about Marco Polo’s visit to China, because the cultural material that may link to Marco Polo is very rare. The only discussion on the material evidence associated with Marco Polo was undertaken by an English ceramicist, Oscar Raphael, in 1932. A Chinese porcelain jar, manufactured in Dehua kilns of southern China, and now housed in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice had been considered the only survived object, which was probably brought back by Marco Polo from China. This discussion has been widely used by many archaeologists in studies of Chinese trade ceramics from Indian Ocean archaeological sites and shipwrecks. Questions remain, however, as to how strong the association of this porcelain jar with Marco Polo is, and to what extent does this jar match Marco Polo’s era. These are the open questions that largely remained a mystery to scholars, until now.

Evidence in terms of Big Pattern from the Indian Ocean archaeology
In many archaeology sites in the Indian Ocean (dated from the 8th to the 19th centuries), Chinese ceramics have been among the most important archaeological findings, because they have the advantages of commonality, durability, identity and being unearthed in large quantities. Chinese ceramic archaeological studies, distinguished from the other ancient pottery and stoneware studies of other civilisations, have a long tradition with large-scale surveys, excavations, and chronological and scientific analyses. In many cases, Chinese ceramic findings unearthed in the littoral sites in the Indian Ocean are playing the role of dating indicators. However, in terms of the Marco Polo jar, there is still debate about its dating. From the archaeological sites of the Marco Polo Jar’s manufacturing place, the Dehua kilns in Fujian Province of south China, two possible dates, AD 1307 and 1376, remain open to debate by scholars. For past many decades, the second date was mainly proposed, which cannot be matched to Marco Polo’s era.

A different angle to look at this open question brings new light to the dating evidence of the Marco Polo Jar. Based on an overview of archaeological evidence in terms of Big Pattern, the similar ceramic findings unearthed in the Indian Ocean, from Southeast Asia, India, Sri Lanka, the Persian Gulf, Red Sea to East Africa, there are over 20 archaeological sites reporting findings of the Marco Polo ware. This provide a new discussion of the association of the similar type Chinese porcelain jar with Marco Polo’s era. Particularly in comparison with the Chinese blue and white porcelain and Longquan celadon findings, the absence of Marco Polo Jar in Minab of Iran and Fustat of Egypt indicates that the Marco Polo Jar may have an earlier dating than the Blue and white porcelain, which was popular during the middle 14th century. Similarly, the cargo found in the Sinan shipwreck near Korea had some Marco Polo Jar but no nature blue and white porcelain. This shipwreck can be dated to AD 1323. The evidence listed above shows that the dating 1307 AD is highly likely, and the dating of Marco Polo Jar should be dated from the late 13th to the early 14th century. The date range of the Marco Polo Jar can be been narrowed down to match the era of Marco Polo’s travel to China.

The Archaeological Echo
Historically, the return journey of Marco Polo had three important stops: Malacca, Mabar (Southern India) and Hormuz. Marco Polo’s return sea voyage to Europe was probably along one of the regular trade routes from China to the West across the Indian Ocean. The distribution of the Marco Polo type wares in the Indian Ocean can also match Marco Polo’s return journey. As the archaeological echo, the dating and distribution of Marco Polo wares in the Indian Ocean can demonstrate the association of the Marco Polo Jar housed in the Treasury of San Marco in Venice with Marco Polo. More than the consumption of Marco Polo wares in the Indian Ocean, the production of Marco Polo porcelain has been also presented by the archaeological evidence, as the echo of the claim by Marco Polo about Chinese ceramic industry in Dehua city. His detailed descriptions of porcelain manufacture not only matched the archaeological evidence found at Dehua kiln sites in Fujian Province of south China, but also introduced the word ‘porcelain’ (porcellino in Italian) that refers to the high-quality Chinese porcelain to Europe.

The archaeological echo presented by the Marco Polo jar not only means that, behind Marco Polo, there must have certainly been other merchants from Europe, the Islamic world and India who travelled and traded with China, but also shows the fact that the European merchants were trading with China in the early 14th century. This indicates the prosperity and economic boom in the Indian trade between China and the West during the 13th to 14th centuries.


Access the full paper,  ‘A Chinese Porcelain Jar Associated with Marco Polo: A Discussion from an Archaeological Perspective‘ for free until January 1, 2018.


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