This Ming porcelain bottle may not appear as delicate as its blue and white porcelain counterparts, but research indicates that a high status individual at Jamestown used it. Wheel-thrown and high fired, as is most Chinese porcelain, it is covered on the exterior with a celadon green-tinted glaze. The decoration is hand-painted over the glaze in green, red, and black. While Jamestown Rediscovery’s vessel is fragmented, a pair of intact comparative examples are located in Queen Elizabeth II’s collection at Buckingham Palace. The bottles have been with the royal family since at least 1829 when they were recorded in an inventory of King George IV’s collection as “A pair of drab ground China Bottles with Imperial Birds & Scrolls, enamelled in green & red, mounted in ormolu engraved necks & circular bead bases.” There is a possibility that they may also be the pieces referred to as “two ollive [sic] coloured flasks” displayed “on the corner shelves next ye gardin” in a 1697 inventory of Queen Mary II’s private collection at Kensington Palace.
These parallels show the complete picture: a descending bird-like figure among flames and clouds with its polychrome tail feathers flowing behind it. This is the fenghuang, a mythical creature that signified the beginnings of harmonious new eras or reigns. It is an amalgamation of 10 different creatures, though only a couple, such as the neck of a snake, are noticeable in this simplified depiction. The first recorded appearance of the fenghuang was in the 27th century BCE at the death of Huangdi and the last in the 14th century CE at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. These celadon green vessels were made during the later years of the Ming Emperor Wanli’s reign (r. 1572-1620).
So, how did this bottle end up in colonial Virginia? The East India Trading Company was importing porcelain into England in the early 17th century in small amounts for aristocrats and high-status individuals with connections to global trade. Many of these elites, such as Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, had connections with both the East India Company and the Virginia Company, suggesting a possible source of porcelain at Jamestown. Cecil was the patron of Jamestown’s Deputy Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, who was here from 1611 to 1616. One sherd was recovered from a context that relates to an addition Samuel Argall made to the governor’s dwelling, indicating that the bottle was broken and discarded by 1617.
There is a bird whose shape is like a cock. It has five colors and stripes. It is called fenghuang. [As the dragon is the chief of the animals, the phoenix is the chief of the birds. It is the symbol of happiness.] The stripes on the head are called virtue; the stripes on the wings, justice; on the back, politeness; those on the breast are called humanity; those on the stomach, honesty. This bird drinks and eats, sings and dances, by itself. When it appears the world enjoys peace.—Shan Hai Ching (The Classic of Mountains and Rivers).