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Chinese Seals in Ireland

A communication from the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath shed new light on the finds (text of the email).

Note: Most of the following has been written before 2000.

Introduction

Since 1780 over 60 Chinese seals (inscribed stamps) have been found in Ireland at rather improbable places. How or why they got there remains unknown despite over two centuries of research.

The currently known facts about this unsolved mystery are presented and discussed.

Description

photo of eleven of the Chinese seals

The seal stamps are all similar: each a cube with an animal seated upon it and an inscription of ancient Chinese letters on the underside. The seals are tiny: only about 28 millimeters.

This kind of seal was made for Chinese scholars, who normally owned about 20 to 30 of these seals. Each carries a different short message on the underside, so that letters could be signed as appropriate.

The Chinese letters on the stamps are ancient: this kind of script was used about 500 BC, at the time of Confucius. According to Chinese scholars from Shanghai and Nanking, one of the inscriptions reads "a pure heart", another "the heart, small indeed, but most noble-minded". For another seal the readings differed as much as "a friend" (Nanking) and "plum trees and bamboo" (Shanghai). But maybe this is to be expected due to the multi-interpretative nature of the Chinese script.

A natural scientist confirmed that some of the animals are sculpted after Chinese monkeys. Other animals seem to be the typical "Chinese lions".

The seal stamps are made from a kind of hard porcelain called blanc de Chine (China-white). Normally, these stamps were made from minerals, not porcelain. Jan Chapman believes she found the origin of this kind of porcelain: a manufacture near the eminent Chinese port of Amoy. Porcelain was made there since the 12th century, but Jan Chapman thinks that the seals found in Ireland are from the early 18th century - a time when the manufacture began to export porcelain of this kind.

Some of the seals were on display in a glass vitrine on the upper story of the Irish National Museum in Dublin in 1980 [3c]. Caused by Dr. Frazer, four seals were "bought in Canton in 1864" for comparison. I do not know if these seals are visible on the image above (especially those with the oval and undulated bases, and the large one with a lion-like animal at the bottom of the photo).

Geographic Distribution of Finds

map of Ireland with locations of finds

The seals were found only in Ireland, southeast of a line from Lough Foyle to Cape Clear (see map) [3c] .

One seal, however, was found in a curiosity shop in London. But when questioned, the shopkeeper said that it had come from Ireland [4].

There have been finds in every county of Ireland, at least one or two each. Especially many were found in Cork (6 seals), Waterford (4 seals), Down and Tipperary (3 seals each) [1b].

The distribution of the seals is peculiar; they "appear to have been sown broadcast over the country in some strange way that I cannot offer solution of" [6].

Timeline of Finds

1780 : The first Chinese seal was found in a moor in Mountrath near Portlaoise (at that time Queen's County) by a peat-cutter during work [3c].

1805 : Discovery of a second seal stamp in a cave near the port of Cork [3c].

18?? : The third stamp was unearthed by some men in county Down in an orchard while digging out the roots of an old pear tree [3c].

1816 : Another seal found at the Clonliffe Parade near the Circular Road in Dublin [3c].

The sixth stamp came to light in county Tipperary while ploughing a field [3c].

Another one in the river bed of the river Boyne near Clonard, county Meath, when workmen were raising gravel [1b]. And another one in Killead, county Down [3c].

1839 : The found Chinese seals sum up to a dozen [5].

In the 1840s, a total of 26 seals was known [7].

1853 : at least 50 known finds [3c]. (Charles Fort reports for 1852 that "about 60 had been found" [1b].)

1864 : Dr. Frazer causes four similar seals to be bought in Canton, China.

1868 : more seals found; now a total of 61 seals [6].

1999 : the current number of discovered seals is unknown.

Researchers

Joseph Huband Smith from Dublin was the first to direct attention to the Chinese seals in 1839 [5]. He believed them to be very ancient.

In the 1840s Edmund Getty [5] made casts of the 26 seals known and sent them to China to verify if the Chinese script on the seals was authentic. He had a friend in Hong Kong who asked two groups of Chinese scholars for translations. Getty had to wait two years for the affirmative answer because it was the Victorian age and the intercontinental transfer of messages was slow.

In 1868, Dr. Frazer [6] put forth the opinion that the seals were not as ancient as the script seemed to indicate.

The Chinese seals of Ireland were popularized by Charles Fort in 1919 [1a].

In or before 1980, Simon Welfare and John Fairley [3c] asked orientalist Jan Chapman [8] about the Chinese seals. She traced back the porcelain to a manufacture in China. Her research also supported the hypothesis that the seals are comparatively modern.

New findings by B.S.McElney in 2007 [11].

Explanation Attempts

What follows are two "mainstream" explanation attempts of the above facts. Both do not explain the distribution and unusual locations of the finds.

Early Import

The early import hypothesis was put forth in 1839 by Joseph Huband Smith. He theorized that the seals had come to Ireland by Phoenician trade ships. He said, Ireland's ports were well-known to those traders of antiquity.

But porcelain was made in China probably only since the 7th century. The real "blossoming time" of porcelain in China was about 1662 to 1722 (under emperor Kang-Hi) [10].

Late Import

The late import theory is the most plausible at the time of this writing (1999). Dr. Frazer suspected the seals were relatively modern, from the 14th or 15th century, probably even from a later time. Jan Chapman believes that the seals are from the early 18th century (see description). Late Import is also supported by B.S.McElney [11], who suggests a pre-1700 import.

The distribution suggests that they have been imported through the port of Cork.


Speculations

Here is a small selection of interesting speculations. Many more are possible.

Airship

First brought forth by Charles Fort. Imagine an "airship" that loses part of its cargo. This could have been a balloon, zeppelin, plane, rocket or something else. Maybe it slowly cruised over Ireland, accidentally losing all these seals. Or a fast-flying craft in the upper atmosphere hurled them downwards on purpose or due to an explosion? This might explain the drawn-out distribution and why they are not found elsewhere in Europe.

Maybe a Chinese scholar discovered a method of air travel, built a flying machine, but met disaster on his first round-the-world trip?

If this trip happened about 1770, it could explain the distribution and why there were no other finds of small Chinese objects. The seal stamp in the cave may or may not be difficult to explain - that depends on the location of the cave.

Practical Joker

A practical joker or magician may have got hold of a single box of imported Chinese seals and set out to dazzle his fellow men. Wandering all over the west of Ireland in the18th century, he or she planted the seals here and there, where they were due to be found sooner or later (similar to the "mad fishmonger", well-known to Forteans).

Signal

As an extension of the above, the signal hypothesis assumes that the seals were distributed intentionally to attract attention. The "improbable" event of Chinese stamps in Ireland could serve as marker which hints to some unknown fact that we are supposed to find out.

In this case, the distribution might be decodable to yield a message.

What might this message be? Maybe something like "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophie" [9].

Remember, the first seal was found in a "revolution climate" - four years after the American revolution and nine years before the French revolution. Also, the 18th century was an age of "chinoiserie" - Chinese culture was re-discovered and admired. Some agents of change (e.g. Freemasons) may have believed to shock the scientific establishment into a new reality in a way similar to the shock of fossils to the medieval theologists.

Interesting Questions

The seals were not all found in one place, like in a treasure cache. Their rather even distribution in unlikely places still needs explanation.

From 1864 or earlier, the seals have been available to wealthy Europeans. Every find after this date is suspect and fake cannot be ruled out - but to what purpose (joker or signal)?

We do not know much about the circumstances of the finds. Was the first seal found in the peat? Considering how slow peat grows - how old is that seal at least? Or did it impact from high above, going deep into the soft peat?

The find under the old pear tree seems to indicate that this seal had been in the earth at least since the 1790s.

Can the actual age of the seals be found out by thermoluminescence or other modern physical or chemical methods? Or are the error margins of these methods too large to be useful?

Since when has this kind of porcelain been made in China or elsewhere?

The first European porcelain was made in Meißen in 1710 [10]; could the "Chinese seals" be European fakes? The European decorative "chinoiserie" style blossomed in the 18th century ...

Are the seals all different (as would be the case with a single scholar using them) or are there look-alikes (as could be the case in an imported batch)?

Have the stamps been applied to their intended use? Have letters been preserved that were sealed with one of the seals? Or did they just serve as toys, good luck charms, decorations, collector's items or other purposes?

The use of this kind of seals was widespread in the Far East, but how did they get to Ireland in a time when there were no official trade relations to China? Why are there no finds in the British Isles or elsewhere in Europe?

Have no other objects from ancient China been found in Ireland? Or are there similar finds of "small chinoiserie" in the Irish area in question? Or in Europe, Africa, or the Americas? Are there finds of Chinese seals in the Atlantic or the Irish Sea?

Search for evidence of Chinese people in Ireland before 1780. Search for Chinese genes in people that have a verified Irish ancestry or try old human bones for "Chinese" DNA. Check the geographical distribution of further finds of the seal stamps. If the shape is roughly elliptic - as it should be from a ballistic distribution - then some finds are expected in the waters off the Irish east and south coasts (see map).

Is there a technical way to speed up the detection of the seals?

Did any of the early researchers have connections to some obscure society (e.g. ritual magic)?

Has Jan Chapman published her findings elsewhere? How many seals have been found in the 20th century? Where?

General Remarks

The facts presented on this page only give the state of research until 1980. I do not know yet if Jan Chapman or later researchers have found out more.

I'd like to hear of anything that brings more light into the mystery of the Chinese seals in Ireland. Please contact me, as I'd like to improve this page.

Please note that I do this in my spare time and cannot guarantee a speedy update.

Thank you for reading thus far. Your comments are appreciated and welcome.

Personal Research History

Charles Fort popularized the "Chinese seals ... found in Ireland" in his Book of the Damned where I first read of them (December 1994). On rereading Robert Anton Wilson's New Inquisition in November 1998, I found that the Chinese seals are mentioned there, too - even a new reference was given, a book supposedly by Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction author.

I looked up various internet book indexes and succeded with the Library of Congress', Experimental Search System (ESS). The Robert Anton Wilson reference from "The New Inquisition" had been "almost correct"; Clarke's name appears in the title, but the book is by Welfare and Fairley [3a], although Clarke gives short comments at the end of each chapter.

The book "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World" was supposed to show a photo of the Chinese seals, but I discovered that it was out of print (December 1998). A program of the same name had also been aired on Yorkshire television (1980 or earlier) [3b].

Encouraged by Dave Walsh from Blather, Ireland, I posted to some USENET newsgroups and tried to find somebody who had that book. No response (maybe due to technical difficulties at my site then).

In late December I talked to Thomas Jaspers, a colleague at work, about the mystery of the Chinese seals, and that I could not find the book by Welfare and Farley. He said, "Hey, I think I have a German translation of that book. I'll fetch it from the attic." Imagine my joy when I finally held the book in my hands!

Much of the information presented came from that edition [3c] when I created the first version of this webpage in early January 1999.


References

[1a] Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned, Boni and Liverlight, 1919
read in:
[1b]The Complete Books of Charles Fort, (The Book of the Damned / New Lands / Lo! / Wild Talents), introduction by Damon Knight, Dover Publication Inc, New York 1974, ISBN 0-486-23094-5, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 74-79217
additional bibliographic info from:
[1c]Louis Kaplan, Witzenschaftliche Weltbetrachtungen: Das verdammte Universum des Charles Fort, Verlag Mathias Gatza, Berlin 1991, ISBN 3-928262-04-1

[2a] Robert Anton Wilson, The New Inquisition
actually, I used the German translation
[2b] Robert Anton Wilson, Die Neue Inquisition, Zweitausendeins Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1.Auflage Januar 1992.

[3a] Simon Welfare & John Fairley, Arthur C. Clarke's mysterious world , London : Collins, 1980. 216 p. : ill. ; 26 cm. "Based on the Yorkshire Television series of the same name."
Welfare, Simon.
Fairley, John, 1940-
Clarke, Arthur Charles, 1917-
[3b] Arthur C. Clarke's mysterious world (Television program), 1980 Trident International Television Enterprises Limited
[3c]Arthur C. Clarke, Simon Welfare, John Fairley : Geheimnisvolle Welten - An den Grenzen unserer Wirklichkeit, Droemer Knaur, München 1981, Lizenzausgabe des Deutschen Bücherbundes
[3d]There was also an English edition by Rainbird Publishing Group Limited, 36 Park Street, London

[4] Chambers' Journal, 16-364, cited from [1b]

[5] Joseph Huband Smith from Dublin, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 1-381, lecture held in 1839, cited from [1b] and [3c]

[6] Dr. Frazer, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 10-171, 1868, cited from [1b] and [3c]

[7] Edmund Getty from Belfast, cited from [3c]

[8] Jan Chapman, orientalist at Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, cited from [3c]

[9] Wiliam Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1st act, cited from internet resources

[10] Duden-Lexikon in drei Bänden, Bibliographisches Institut, Duden Verlag, Mannheim 1962

[11] B.S.McElney, private communication 2007-03-28 (text of the email)


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