Since 1780, more than 60 Chinese porcelain seals have mysteriously appeared, scattered around random locations in Ireland.
By "seal", I mean it as an object used to close letters, which serves as a mark of identity to prove the letter wasn't tampered with during transport.
In 1780, a worker cutting peat near Portlaoise in Ireland found a porcelain seal shaped as a cube, around 28 mm (1 and 1/8 of an inch) wide, with an animal shape sitting on top of it. On the underside each seal has a short message written in Chinese. In 1805, the second one was found in a cave near Cork.
In 1816, another one was found in a field near Dublin, another one was found while plowing a field near Tipperary, one was found by workers digging out the roots of a pear tree.
Until 1868, 61 seals were found all over Ireland.
Here's a map showing the locations of the findings.
In 1839, an Irishman named Joseph Huband Smith was the first who directed attention towards the seals, reading about them in the Royal Irish Academy.
Nobody back then could agree what the messages on the seals meant or if they actually meant anything and what the animal depicted on the top of was. Huband Smith's theory was that they were brought to Ireland by ancient Phoenician merchants.
In 1840, a man from Belfast named Edmund Getty asked a natural scientist what the animal was, and he confirmed that it was a depiction of a Chinese monkey.
He made casts of all 25 seals which were found at the time, and sent them to a friend who worked in Hong Kong, where they were examined by two groups of Chinese scholars. After two years, he got a response. They said that the seals would have been made for educated Chinese men.
A man would have owned 20 - 30 of them. Each seal carried a short, positive message, and were used to seal letters with an appropriate message.
Chinese scholars agreed on most of the messages.
One of them, for example, read "The heart, small indeed, but most noble-minded". However, there were disagreements about some messages. Scholars from Nanking read one seal simply as "Some friend", while those from Shanghai read it as "plum trees and bamboo", but this might be due to the fact that Chinese script can be interpreted in different ways. The seals' script was quite old, used around 500 years B.C., during the life of Confucius.
However, even seals made much later would use the same, archaic script.
In 1980, several seals were displayed in the Irish National Museum in Dublin.
Here's a picture of the display.
Among the original seals, there are four which were bought in 1864 by some Dr. Frazer in Canton for comparison.
The large one at the bottom, the one above it and the oval shaped one are probably the ones bought by Frazer. At the request from a British TV network filming a series called Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World (more on that in a moment), the seals were examined by Jan Chapman, an orientalist from Dublin's Chester Beatty library.
She first noticed that the material which the seals were made from was strange; Chinese seals are usually carved from minerals, not made of porcelain.
They were also bigger than the ones found in Ireland.
She was able to identify the china as a product of a manufacture near the major Chinese port of Amoy. She said that the factory started producing china in the 12th century, but she believes that they were made at the beginning of the 1700s, when the factory started exporting porcelain.
This post is based on a chapter from the book Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, published in 1980 and based on the TV show of the same name.
It's also a summary of the text from an edition of the Mysterious World. The text references an even older book, the Book of the damned, written by an American named Charles Fort, who collected bizarre stories from around the world at the beginning of the 20th century. Edmund Getty also wrote a book about the seals.
There are a couple of theories about the origin of the seals. I already mentioned Huband Smith's theory about the Phoenician merchants. However, porcelain wasn't produced in China until the 7th century, so that theory isn't very likely. C. Fort had a strange theory about their origin: he believed that a forgotten Chinese scholar built a flying machine, which exploded at a great height, scattering its cargo around Ireland. One of the blog posts above speculates about a lost connection between the Irish and Chinese peoples, referencing some anecdotal evidence and Tarim mummies.
Some of the more likely hypotheses are that the seals are a prank, scattered across Ireland by some joker. Dr. Hilgemeier argues that the news of something as strange as the discovery of Chinese seals in Ireland could have been used by some group in the late 18th century as some sort of a signal. He also sent an email to the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, UK. The response he got back suggests that the seals could have been inserted as presents into crates of tea which were smuggled into Ireland in the 17th century.
This seems like the most likely explanation, but it still has some holes.
- Why weren't they found somewhere else in the British Isles or Europe?
- Why are there no records of them before they were found?
- Why were they found in such strange locations?
- Who do you think could have placed Chinese seals in bogs and fields in Ireland, and why?