Made in China for centuries, porcelain first entered Europe via Middle East intermediaries in small quantities in the 14th century. It was not until after the Portuguese established trade with China during the Ming dynasty in the 16th century that large quantities of porcelain were shipped to Europe. Dutch merchants were able to acquire porcelain in Lisbon for distribution to Northern Europe. In 1580, Spain took control of Portugal, and because they were at war with the Netherlands, they denied Dutch access to Portugal. Illicit trade between the two did occur, but at great risk, thus the Dutch began to seek their own routes to China in the late 1500s. After establishing the Dutch East India Company in 1602, the Dutch became the dominant maritime traders in Asia and the primary supplier of Chinese Porcelain in Europe. In addition to legitimate trade, Dutch looting of Portuguese and Spanish ships and Chinese junks brought even more porcelain into the market. Porcelain flooded into Northern Europe via the Dutch in the early 1600s, making it readily available to English royalty, nobility, and wealthy merchants alike.
Chinese porcelain is the finest ceramic ware type recovered from both James Fort (1607-1624) and early port (1625-1650) period features. The ware arrived at Jamestown as early as 1610 with upper echelon settlers. Some porcelain objects may have been acquired directly from the Dutch who possibly were trading in Virginia as early as 1618, the time by which ordinary colonists were making fortunes raising tobacco and could afford luxuries such as porcelain.
Two types of Ming Chinese porcelain have been uncovered at Jamestown: kraak and Zhanzhou. Each type is identified by its fabric, form, and decoration.
Kraak porcelain comprises more than half of the porcelain assemblage from James Fort. This type of porcelain was made in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, which became the center of porcelain production in China with the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. Probably named by the Dutch for the Portuguese ships in which they were transported, kraak was the first mass-produced porcelain made for export to Europe, and was primarily manufactured during the reign of Emperor Wanli (1573-1620).
A second type of porcelain, once known as Swatow, is now known by the name of its production area, Zhangzhou, in Fujian province. It is a coarser type of porcelain that was traded in the 16th century to Southeast Asian and to Europe by the Portuguese, and to the Americas by the Spanish. As early as 1596, the Dutch distinguished between kraak porcelain and the coarser Zhangzhou, which they referred to a grof porcelain (“rough” or “coarse”).
Fabric:Kraak porcelain fabrics are fine-grained, white, translucent, and contain very few impurities. Zhangzhou fabrics range from a fine-grained white porcelain to coarse pinkish- to grayish-colored porcelaneous stoneware. The white fabric of the single Dehua object is coarse-grained and contains numerous fissures.
Glaze: Kraak feldspathic glazes are slightly bluish-tinged and glossy with occasional pitting and imperfections from impurities in the clay. Bases are generally, but not always, glazed. Occasionally grit from the sand bed on which they were fired adheres to the footrings. Zhangzhou feldspathic glazes vary in color from a clear greenish- or bluish-color to an opaque grayish-white. They are often crackled and very thickly and carelessly applied, sometimes leaving unglazed patches on the base which are burnt to a reddish-brown or buff-yellow color. Most bases are glazed and pitted, and the bases of footrings are unglazed with much grit adhering.
Decoration: Both kraak and Zhangzhou porcelains are decorated in underglaze cobalt blue which varies from an inky dark blue to a light cobalt blue to a silvery color. The designs are often outlined in dark blue and filled with a light wash.
Common designs on kraak vessels are flowers, insects, birds, rocks, grass, and panels or medallions. A single bowl in the collection is decorated with Chinese figures. Two kraak bowls are slip-decorated in white above a blue ground with a dragon motif, while a cup rim sherd is decorated above a brown ground with a white-slipped prunus branch. Several sherds of a kraak bowl are ornamented with a carved decoration known as linglong.
Comprising the majority of the Zhangzhou assemblage, bowls are hastily decorated on their exteriors with flowers and scrolls, and on their base interiors with one or two flowers. A celadon green bottle from Zhangzhou bears overglaze motifs on the exterior. Two Zhangzhou porcelain dishes in the assemblage are entirely undecorated.
Form: Kraak porcelain vessels include bowls and dishes of various sizes; cups and tea cups; saucers; a pedestal bowl; and wine cups. Foliated rims appear frequently. Also typical of kraak porcelains are chatter-marks on the bases from the potters’ trimming tools. Bowls comprise the majority of Zhangzhou porcelain vessels. However, the Jamestown assemblage also includes a lid for a bowl, two large shallow dishes, and a bottle.