Less than two inches tall, this diminutive Chinese porcelain vessel with “flame frieze” decoration is known as a wine cup. Several of these vessels have been found during the archaeological excavations of James Fort where they had been probably used by the colony’s gentlemen to drink their distilled spirits (aqua vitae).
Made in Jingdezhen, China, these fine cups were once thought to be Imperial ware, reserved for use by the Chinese elite. Now they are recognized as vessels made for export as they have been found on a number of Dutch shipwrecks and terrestrial sites dating to the first half of the 17th century. This cup was found in a circa 1610 part of James Fort — earlier than finds of such wine cups in shipwrecks off the west coast of Africa (1613) or the South China Sea (1640s). These porcelain wine cups were rare and expensive objects and served as status indicators for upper class Europeans. Three of the flame frieze cups were even included in a curiosity cabinet assembled for King Gustavus Adolphus II of Sweden.
More than a dozen of these fine wine cups have been found on Virginia archaeological sites. Before at least 40 of these wine cups were recovered from the 1613 shipwreck Witte Leeuw in 1976, it was believed that fine porcelain such as this was considered Imperial ware, only for use by the Chinese elite. A 1640s wreck of a Chinese merchantman in the south China Sea, known as the Hatcher wreck, contained very similar wine cups. These later wine cups are more heavily potted and the scroll and flame frieze appears slightly higher up on the body than it does on the Wan Li examples.