Review by Amy C. Earls
Gifts from the Celestial Kingdom: A Shipwrecked Cargo for Gold Rush California

Thomas N. Layton. Gifts from the Celestial Kingdom: A Shipwrecked Cargo for Gold Rush California. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. 272 pp., 64 bw illus., 4 maps, appendices, bibliography, index. $21.95 (softbound). 

The original puzzle that prehistoric archaeologist Thomas Layton faced was what were Chinese porcelain sherds doing in an Indian village excavation in California? In an attempt to identify and date the fragments, Layton widened his inquiry to encompass visits to antique shops, auction houses, Chinatown, museums specializing in the China trade, and sport divers’ private collections as well as business archives and genealogical societies. Tracing the sherds to an 1850 shipwreck on the northern California coast, the author produced a report on the Indian village excavation, a book on the ship Frolic,[1] and this latest volume, on the Frolic’s last cargo and its arrival in California during the gold rush.

A history book that presents a vivid description of the gold-rush era trade between California and China is impressive; for an archaeology book to accomplish this feat is remarkable, since archaeologists are notorious for excruciating detail rather than skillful storytelling. In this case, however, the author uses the material culture details to great effect. The narrative is told from four points of view (two set in the mid-nineteenth century, two in the present day): an accountant for Boston merchants Augustine Heard and Company; a non-European sailor (a fact-based fictional character) who was one of the last to abandon the ship; sport divers and others examining the wreck site; and an archaeologist. The shifts in point of view from historical narrative to present-day analysis are clearly marked and sources referenced. 

Chapters 2 through 4, set primarily in California and Canton, together with chapter 7, on artifacts, are the heart of the book. Sources such as Heard and Company’s business records and invoices, Everett’s 1844–1850 letters to California merchant Thomas Larkin, and antique and archaeological artifacts are skillfully interwoven to tell the story of the Frolic’s last cargo. The archaeologist’s point of view in chapter 1 introduces the reader to the shipwreck as the author swims above the wreck site thirteen years after finding fragments of a ginger jar at the site of an Indian village. This meta-narrator point of view weaves in and out of the other narratives, personalizing the research process by noting highlights and problems that occurred during analysis. Chapter 5 provides a sailor’s point of view on events, as well as a dramatization of the ship running aground. Chapter 6 gives the history of the site of the shipwreck, including sport diver activities. Chapter 7 on the collection provides rich description of individual artifacts and demonstrates how analysis works in historical archaeology but falls short in describing the shipwreck artifacts as a whole.

The chain of discoveries is not particularly unusual for a historical archaeology project, allowing for a modicum of good luck and serendipity. The ginger jar fragments were found in a Pomo Indian village site excavated by Layton with field school students. After informants suggested that the fragments resembled those on a nearby “pottery beach,” the source eventually was identified as the Frolic, which wrecked in 1850. Not content with merely dating the sherds from his site, Layton spent eighteen years researching the wreck, examining collections made by sport divers, and searching for documentary records. The virtual destruction of the ship and the relatively few artifacts recovered by divers (roughly two thousand) made it necessary for him to cast his net widely for other lines of evidence in describing the cargo. Here good luck was most evident: not only did many of the merchants’ records survive, they also provided useful descriptions of the cargo. 

The cast-iron bars that the divers found in shallow water were ballast, not sunken treasure. Most of the artifacts were found rusted together into a pile that divers dynamited in order to retrieve individual objects. To their disappointment, the artifacts were mundane ceramic fragments, brass fasteners and fittings, beads, bottles, and a few coins. The motley collection of items that survived the ship’s original salvage in 1850—and the turbulence and corrosion of the shallow saltwater environment, blasting by sport divers, and inadequate conservation treatment following exposure to air—differed significantly from the goods loaded onboard in 1850. How these few remnants compare to the records of the Frolic’s cargo is a central theme of this book. 

Although the bulk of the cargo was perishable, the broken ceramics were one of the key remaining artifact classes. The Frolic’s bill of lading (reproduced in appendix C) describes the chinaware only as packed in 676 rolls and 20 cases. Because the cargo was based closely on the cargo aboard the ship Eveline from the previous year and carried a similar number of ceramics (approximately 21,000 pots), the Eveline’s records could be used to estimate the Frolic’s cargo.[2] In his analysis of the bulk ceramics (that is, those packed in rolls; the ceramics in cases may have been sets), vessel size and price categories in the historical inventory were correlated with shallow bowls in four sizes and rice bowls in two sizes. The author’s correlation between the shipwreck fragments, the Frolic’s bill of lading, and the merchants’ invoices and auction sale prices seems reasonable and logical.

Inconsistencies in the terminology used to describe the ceramics obscure a potentially significant contribution to the China trade literature. Are the shallow bowls (apparently saucer dishes) stoneware (p. 153) or porcelain (pp. 216–17)? Based on scattered text references and the black-and-white photograph (fig. 42), the three sizes of bowls with unglazed interior rings and decorated with Fu and snail patterns appear to be what has been called provincial or Asian market wares.[3] The rice bowls in two patterns and sizes also appear to be the same ware. Only the small six-inch bowl might represent typical Jingdezhen-type porcelain for Western markets. In fairness to the author, Asian market ware is often difficult to classify, being similar to porcelain tableware vessel forms but different in its more granular body, firing technology (wiped interiors rather than footrings), and decorative patterns. The important point for the cargo analysis is that this tableware appears to be present in significant quantities in a cargo intended for a Western market. 

Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine from this book how many bowls in each of these categories were recovered from the shipwreck. Estimated numbers of vessels represented are not given, nor are the counts for each category of porcelaneous stoneware or porcelain. I could not even find a total number of shipwreck artifacts analyzed in this project. Admittedly, the size and ware type categories are more important than the numbers collected nonsystematically by divers, but the numbers within each category would indicate the strength of the sample. The historical data, presented in twenty pages of tables in Appendices A and B, are favored over the archaeological data. In rightly avoiding the pages of tables and detailed inventory of thousands of artifacts (p. 4) typical of archaeological reports, the author has overcorrected, providing too little archaeological detail.[4] 

This lack of artifact counts is frustrating because the Frolic’s cargo could provide definitive evidence that these so-called Asian market tablewares were imported to the American market in huge quantities (an estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of the approximately 21,000 bulk ceramics). Because the shipwreck’s sample can be tied to the numbers in the merchant records, the evidence for intentional import of these wares specifically for the American market would be convincing, especially when combined with the archaeological information regarding these wares gathered from other Chinese camp locations in the western United States. Auction catalogs and archaeological reports alike state that this ware type was produced in south China for southeast Asian markets, not for European or Western markets, yet it has been found in shipwreck cargoes and archaeological sites.[5] The Frolic artifacts could prove that, for at least one 1850 cargo, this inexpensive ware was targeted specifically to the California trade. 

It is hardly surprising that the China trade literature does not note archaeological occurrences of this ware, since that information usually is buried in archaeological reports aimed at small professional audiences and replete with jargon. It therefore is ironic that this book, aimed at a popular audience, could have made a significant ceramic contribution had basic archaeological material been included. Nevertheless, Gifts from the Celestial Kingdom is a superb introduction to the China-to-California gold rush trade and potential research contributions of historical archaeology.

Amy C. Earls
Book and Exhibition Reviews Editor
Ceramics in America

Ceramics in America 2005

  • [1]

    Thomas N. Layton, The Voyage of the “Frolic”: New England Merchants and the Opium Trade (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).

  • [2]

    Invoices and itemized accounts of the auction of the Eveline’s cargo in San Francisco are transcribed and combined in Appendix A. The Frolic’s bill of lading is given in Appendix C. 

  • [3]

    Extensive documentation of an 1822 shipwreck cargo for the Chinese community on Java with numerous examples of this ware can be found in Nagel Auctions, Tek Sing Treasures (Stuttgart: Nagel Auctions, 2000). Coarse porcelain is illustrated and noted in Christiaan J. A. Jörg, The Geldermalsen: History and Porcelain (Groningen, Netherlands: Kemper, 1986), p. 95, figs. 88, 89. Seventeenth-century provincial wares without the interior ring from the Hatcher junk shipwreck are discussed and pictured in Colin Sheaf and Richard Kilburn, The Hatcher Porcelain Cargoes: The Complete Record (Oxford, Eng.: Phaidon and Christie’s, 1988), p. 76. Porcelaneous stoneware from a Sacramento archaeological site is defined as crude gray granular fabric that is not translucent in Mary and Adrian Praetzellis, Archaeological and Historical Studies at the San Fong Chong Laundry, 814 I Street, Sacramento, California (Rohnert Park, Calif.: Cultural Resources Studies Center, Anthropological Studies Center, Sonoma State University, 1990), p. 25. Asian market wares from archaeological sites in Riverside, California, are pictured in Fred W. Mueller Jr., “Asian Tz’u: Porcelain for the American Market,” in Wong Ho Leun: An American Chinatown, vol. 2: Archaeology (San Diego, Calif.: Great Basin Foundation, 1987), pp. 259–99, fig. 14. 

  • [4]

    The numbers might be available in Patricia Hagen Jones, “A Comparative Study of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Chinese Blue-and-White Export Ceramics from the Frolic Shipwreck, Mendocino County, California” (Master’s thesis, San Jose State University, 1992). The collections described in the book under review were donated by divers to the Frolic Shipwreck Repository in the Mendocino County Museum.

  • [5]

    For a list of resources, see note 3, above.