In or around 1886, Charles Dawson presented the British Museum with a rather curious find; a Chinese bronze bowl which he claimed to have found at Dover, in Kent. Sadly the precise circumstances of the discovery were never elucidated, though both the artefact and its unusual context were both mirrored by a slightly earlier presentation (in 1885) of a Chinese hu or bronze ritual vessel which was given to the Museum by Henry Willett. Willett claimed to have discovered his vessel “in the Dane John (donjon) at Canterbury”. Unfortunately there are no recorded archaeological investigations within the Medieval ‘Dane John’ of Canterbury in the later decades of the 19th century, so how the bronze was first found, and how Willett came into possession of the artefact, are unlikely to be satisfactorily explained.
Doubts surrounding the authenticity of Willett’s bronze arise when the various time periods are considered, for the vessel dates from the 4th or 3rd century BC, whilst the influx of Chinese vessels into the Northern European market only occurred after the 17th century AD “when trade with China had brought not only porcelain but textiles and curios of every kind to the west”. The date of Willett’s hu would therefore appear to be at odds with its alleged context, making it somewhat unlikely (though not altogether impossible) that the artefact was found within a medieval feature inside Kentish town.
Dawson’s bowl measures 33 cm in diameter being decorated in the style of the Former (Western) Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to AD 25. A circular panel in the centre of the dish contains two fish set either side of an inscription which may be translated as “May you have sons and grandsons” . Robert Downes, a metallurgist by training, and William Watson, then assistant keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, examined the bowl in the mid 1950s. Both men were intrigued by the bowl’s surface patination, comprising “a dull olive green…with a rich incrustation…resembling malachite in places” . Watson observed that such patination “certainly looks strange” for a vessel of its supposed date, noting in addition that “the metal has been beaten, which is not the technique usually found in Han dynasty metal vessels” . In conclusion, Watson stated that “I do not, however, think that it is a fake, though it may be a copy of some age made in China”.
It is apparent from the way in which Dawson’s bowl had been manufactured, as well as the nature of surface patination, that it is more likely to have been created within the last few hundred years, rather than the two thousand it first appeared. This is not unusual for the art of copying or mimicking early forms of metal and ceramic artefacts, textiles and texts for economic gain has a long and established history in China, certain ‘archaic’ bronze forms having been forged at least from the 11th century AD. The great period of Chinese frauds was, however, between the 16th and early 17th century when there was an huge increase in the manufacture of such artefacts. Dawson’s piece probably fits within such a category.
Although not a clear ‘forgery’, in the sense of having been created specifically to dupe the scientific community, one must ask what a post 16th century Chinese bronze is doing in late 19th Century Dover. The suggestion that it was brought to Kent by an antiquarian collector, seems plausible enough, but the question of Dawson’s complicity to deceive remains. Did he know that this was a relatively modern import, even if he was unaware that it was a 16th or 17th century copy of an ancient piece? Did his enthusiasm to present the piece to the British Museum, outweigh his duty to fully investigate the true nature and provenance of the artefact? Did he attempt to pass it off to the British Museum as a genuine discovery, perhaps in emulation of Henry Willett? Was he alternatively duped by a dealer in antiquities who claimed to have received it from a reliable source somewhere in Dover? This latter suggestion could explain the somewhat vague circumstances of its discovery and context and would, if taken at face value, further imply that Dawson was the innocent victim of an unscrupulous salesperson or dealer in antiquities, rather than the actual instigator of a cynical hoax.