Macao beneath the surface

15 July 2016

Macao’s largest archaeological excavation of blue-and-white porcelain has revealed the city’s prosperity as an export centre more than four centuries ago.

To better understand the scope of St Paul’s Church and the adjacent St Paul’s college, the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Macao invited the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to conduct an archaeological project entitled “St. Paul’s College Ruins Archaeological Investigation and Excavation Project.”

Six years of archaeological work behind the ruins of St Paul’s have unearthed thousands of pieces that give us a new understanding of the booming commercial life in Macao during the late Ming and early Qing periods.

The work began in 2010 at the Rua de D. Belchoir Carneiro N.16-22 and has been going on uninterrupted since then.

“The main things we discovered were bowls, dishes and other items used in daily life,” said Harold Kuan Chon Hong, a senior technician in the department of cultural heritage at the Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC). “They show us that, at that time, Macao was a flourishing trade centre from which Chinese goods were exported to the world.”

The Portuguese began to settle in Macao in the mid-16th century, during the last century of the Ming dynasty. The Manchus, who established the Qing dynasty in 1644, overthrew it. Numerous pieces of construction materials such as tiles and bricks and ceramic pieces were excavated. Of these ceramic pieces, there were thousands of pieces of blue-and-white porcelain artifacts, including “Kraak” porcelain for export sale.

It was estimated that these items were manufactured in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties. “Kraak” porcelain manufactured in the period from the late Ming to early Qing Dynasties of China was a new line of export product at the time. Its patterns and motifs are unique, characterised by the continuous ring of “reserved panels” around the central painting.

“Chinese products, especially tea, silk and porcelain, were in great demand among foreign buyers, including in the west and Southeast Asia,” Kuan said in an interview. “Macao was one of China’s most important export points at that time. We believe that most of what we discovered were items destined for export. A small portion might have been used by wealthy foreign residents of Macao.”

“Most of the pieces we found were imperfect. They are broken or have flaws. Only one or two are in perfect condition. Tea and silk degrade, so that we did not find remains of them. What we found were drinking bowls, dishes and other items used in daily life, mostly porcelain,” he said.

Artistic importance

“It has great artistic meaning. The pieces tell us what was beautiful and popular at that time and what designs the foreigners liked. There are birds, plants and paintings of Chinese children,” said Kuan.

“We have been able to identify the pieces from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, one of the most important centres of porcelain production in China. The quality of its pieces is very good. It is famous for the whiteness of its pieces. There is a bowl used by Muslims to wash their hands before they say their prayers,” he said.

He said that the pieces are also useful for historical reference, to compare to what has been discovered elsewhere.

“They show us the history of Macao. For this, we need not only written documents but also physical objects. They are very accurate as evidence of history and show us the prosperity of the city at that time,” he said.

From 26th September 2014 to 11th January 2015, the Department of Culture of Guangdong Province, the Home Affairs Bureau of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.) Government and the Cultural Affairs Bureau of the Macao S.A.R. Government organised a travelling exhibition titled “Historical Imprints of Lingnan: Major Archaeological Discoveries of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao”, to make known the successes of the archaeological works held in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao and showing the results of the three regions’ joint efforts within the context of cultural cooperation meetings.

The exhibition showed some of the archaeological finds in the Ruins of St. Paul’s College. The government has made no decision on whether to build a permanent museum to show the pieces.

Between 1990 and 1996, the colonial government organised archaeological excavations at a different site on the ruins of St Paul’s; Portuguese experts conducted it. After five years of work, they created the Museum of Sacred Art where some of the pieces are displayed.


Kuan said that the greatest challenge in the project was the abundance of the materials and how to handle them correctly.

“This is the archaeological site where the most blue-and-white porcelains have been excavated so far in Macao, with several thousand pieces. The challenge is how to catalogue, record and photograph them and arrange everything in the correct way. We must examine the different characteristics of each piece and find out which were together.”

“We must date the pieces. In some, we found writing below, which refers to an emperor and his era. The porcelain fragment shows part of its foot ring. It is interesting to note that two manufacturing dates are inscribed over one another at the base. It is assumed that the new reign mark, a six-character calligraphic inscription that reads ‘Made in the Tianqi reign of Ming Dynasty’, was simply written over the first reign mark, ‘Made in the Chenghua reign of Ming Dynasty’. The actual manufacturing date is most likely in the later years of the Tianqi reign, Ming Dynasty. The fragment shows that some of the blue-and-white porcelain wares were intentionally inscribed with a date earlier than its actual production date,” he said.

The work involves both digging on site and examination and research indoors. During the summer, Macao has heavy rains; “if they are not too severe, we can continue the work. The longer time will be spent working indoors.”

He said that he could not estimate when the project would be completed because they had to work meticulously. “Our superiors support us in our work. We have our own pressure. This is so important to the history of Macao.”

During the first two years, between 2010 and 2012, the work was conducted jointly by staff of the IC and of the archaeology division of the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

“We complemented each other,” said Kuan. “They were very experienced in this field and helped us, while we had the local knowledge. They gave us advice and guidance. After 2012, we continued to exchange ideas and opinions through e-mail.”

Seven years in Nanjing

Since his childhood, Kuan wanted to go into archaeology. He was blessed with parents who did not oppose his choosing a career out of the mainstream.

He was born in Macao into a modest family. His father was a driver and his mother made shirts in a textile factory. “They were very open-minded and let me decide my own future. My younger brother works in the social welfare field, helping handicapped people.”

His parents supported his decision to study archaeology at the University of Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province. He spent a total of seven years there, including a four-year foundation course and a three-year masters degree.

The city of Nanjing is abundant in history. It served as the capital of several dynasties, kingdoms and republican governments until 1949.

Kuan’s course involved long periods of field work in remote areas where  young people from the cities rarely go.

“This included six months in rural Jiangsu and Hubei. The Hubei site was a remote village in the mountains. We stayed in the homes of farmers who rented rooms to us. Living conditions were not good. There were no inside toilets, so they had to make one for us. It was not convenient for the lady students.”

The homes had no heating, so the students had to wrap themselves in heavy clothes. “There was electricity but no Internet. We could use our mobile telephones and there was a telephone in the home of the farmer. In Macao, the nearest supermarket is a few minutes away; there, it was an hour by road. The diet was simple, with vegetables and thin slices of meat.”

The students did not eat together with the farmers. “We returned home late, very tired, and ate on our own. I understood about 50 per cent of what the farmers said, my mainland classmates a bit more.” He also spent one month doing similar field work in Hunan province.

This experience gave him and his classmates an understanding and experience of archaeological excavation and rural life in China that few university students and city people have.

He graduated in 2010 and decided to return to his hometown, where he joined the IC. Most of his classmates remained in the mainland, some continuing to work in archaeology and others moving into the history field.

Major finds in Coloane

These are not the first major discoveries in Macao.

From 1973 to 2006, digs near Hac Sa Beach in Coloane Island revealed evidence of human habitation in the Neolithic period about 4,000 years ago.

In 1995 and 2006, the excavations were carried out by a team from the Chinese University of Hong Kong led by Professor Tang Chung, a specialist in archaeological studies. The finds were impressive, unearthing a large number of objects, including potsherds, stone tools and pieces of quartz and crystal ornaments, that indicate a small yet significantly advanced pre-historic civilisation living on the shores of Coloane Island, whose inhabitants were more than just subsistence fishermen.

“The level of civilisation in this region could certainly have been as advanced as other cultures that existed in other parts of China, such as the Xia and Longshan cultures,” said Professor Wu Zhiliang, director of the Macao Foundation. (Macao Magazine, by Mark O’Neill)