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DIGGER'S DIARY: The Mysterious Ming Medallion

Note to Collectors Universe readers: since this mysterious object was originally posted here, and the story evolved on these forums in bits and pieces, you may have already read a lot of it. However, I thought I would sew the pieces of narrative together and write it up as a proper "Digger's Diary" entry, for posterity. The moderators of the treasurenet.com forums, probably the largest detector and treasure hunting site in the world, have seen fit to include it in their
"Best Of TreasureNet" category, alongside some truly remarkable and amazing finds. In fact, they moved the story into the "Best Of Treasurenet" less than an hour after I submitted it for review! I am hoping they will see fit to publish it in Western & Eastern Treasures magazine, which is the granddaddy of detector periodicals. Of course, future inclusion in some sort of publication by the Dr. Siu-Leung Lee mentioned below is probable, as well. Of course, the find appears to be right in the center of a controversy between would-be revisionist historians and other scholars.


DIGGER'S DIARY: The Mysterious Ming Medallion

Some time in early 1994, when I lived in the mountains of North Carolina near Asheville, I finally received verbal permission to detect an old churchyard I'd had my eye on for some time. The church was perched atop a large hill. Though a 20th century building occupied the site, there were many old tombstones in the cemetery and according to the sign out front, the original church had been established only a short time after the first white settler, Samuel Davidson, had built a cabin in that area in 1784, and was subsequently killed by the Cherokee, who viewed him as a trespasser. The long-vanished original church was probably a log structure, as were most antebellum buildings in the region.

I was understandably excited, and impatient to detect the site, so much so that one of my first outings took place in a fierce snowstorm. I would dig a target, then dash back to the car heater to thaw my frozen fingers. That first day, in the blizzardlike conditions, I found several early Wheat cents in the same hole; after four of them came up, the fifth coin proved to be an 1899 Indian cent. Finally, I was finding the 19th century coins I knew would be there! One promising signal was too difficult to dig because the ground had frozen, so I left it until the spring thaw. It later proved to be a 1900 Barber dime. That summer, I found an 1894-O Barber half dollar on one corner of the church, near the building. I was astonished at how relatively shallow it was: I cut a plug of sod about two and a half inches deep, and it popped right out! It's well-worn and was probably lost sometime in the 20th century, but it was an exciting find for me, particularly as I had not dug any silver half dollars at the time (and to date, I have yet to find a second Barber half).


On another outing that August, around the time I dug the Barber half, I found a curious bronze or brass disc, which had a plain back and a small cartouche on the front with Chinese characters. It was about four inches deep. I was mystified as to its identity. Obviously it was fairly old and had almost certainly been in the ground at least 50-100 years (after all, it was deeper than the 1894-O half dollar that was found a few feet away, though that doesn't prove anything).

Because of the way it was made, with a perfectly rounded edge, I assumed it was no older than perhaps the late 1800s, or no newer than the 1920s. Usually I am pretty good at guessing the age of things. Eventually, I tossed the mysterious object into my "Interesting Junque" drawer, where I put all the finds that are not really valuable but are too interesting to discard. I mostly forgot about it for a decade. A month after finding the Barber half and the mysterious Chinese artifact, I left North Carolina and moved to southeast coastal Georgia.

More than a decade later, in early 2006, I decided to dig the strange artifact out of the drawer, scan pictures of it, and see if someone on the Internet could translate the Chinese characters.


I found that the Chinese inscription, translated, reads, “Authorized and awarded by XuanDe of Great Ming”.

Xuan De (1426-1435) is the era of Xuan Zong, who was the fifth emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

Ming Dynasty? Early 1400s? Whaaat?

Surely this couldn't be a 600-year-old Chinese artifact that I'd unearthed from a churchyard in a small Western North Carolina town! After all, the edge was perfectly round. It looked almost machine-made. No doubt it WAS old- as previously mentioned, I had little doubt that it was at least 50-100 years old, but over 600 years? No way.

Or could it be? In the fifteenth century, the Chinese were far more advanced than the Western nations, who had not quite emerged from the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. As a world numismatist who's handled a few ancient and medieval Chinese coins, I have observed that many of those are perfectly round, unlike the hand-hammered European coins of the same era.

After posting the artifact on the Treasurenet Forums on the Internet, I was contacted by a Dr. S.L. Lee of Columbus, Ohio, who wanted to research the item. I told him all I knew about how and where I had found it, and told him I would send it to him for examination. If he was interested in purchasing it, he could send me a check for whatever amount he thought fair. After all, I had no idea what it was, and to me it was just a curious round item from my junk drawer. He sent me a modest check which was slightly higher than the very low value I had in my head, and I was satisfied. Then he pressed me for more detailed information. I reiterated what I had told him before, in as much detail as I could muster from memory. I have a semi-photographic memory and if I were to visit the site today, I could point to within five or ten feet of where I found the item.

Later, Dr. Lee emailed me a photograph, asking if it showed the correct site.

It was a photograph of him, standing behind the church, just downhill from the exact spot!

Now, let's pause to consider this, a moment... Dr. Lee is from Columbus, Ohio. This means he climbed on a plane and flew to North Carolina, just to visit that tiny town on the outskirts of Asheville, and had somebody take that photograph of him standing just below the very spot where I'd dug that artifact a decade earlier!

What in the world had I found, that was so important to him!?! Yikes!

When asked, he merely replied, "You will know." A few months passed, and the pressures of daily life drew me away from the mystery. I let my email correspondence with Dr. Lee lapse. Then I decided to post the mystery on the Collectors Universe Metal Detecting Forum, which is one of my Internet haunts. The people there were intrigued, wondering, just as I was, about what was so important about this artifact that Dr. Lee would travel so far in his research.

After some webcrawling, I discovered that the trip from Ohio to North Carolina was not the longest journey Dr. Lee had been making.

He had given some lectures in Hong Kong in June of 2006. When I saw the poster from the lectures, I was flabbergasted.

There, front and center, was my mysterious medallion!


Apparently, Dr. Lee believes it might be evidence of contact between the Ming Dynasty Chinese (possibly the famous explorer Zheng He) with Native American tribes! Zheng He and his large fleet sailed in 1430, more than half a century before Columbus' voyages to the New World!

To quote part of the description on his Asiawind.com website:

"A 7-cm diameter plain brass medal with the inscription “Authorized and awarded by XuanDe of Great Ming” was unearthed several hundred miles inland from the American east coast.
In 1430, Ming Emperor Xuan Zong commissioned Zheng He to deliver a message to foreign nations that he was enthroned with a new era named Xuan De. This was the whole purpose of the 7th and the last expedition for Zheng He. “Did Zheng He’s excursion reach east America? Or is there other explanation?” The owner of the disk, Dr. Siu-Leung Lee, would like to present some interesting observations and leave the conclusion to the audience.
Ming emperors had a diplomatic protocol to announce enthronement and new era by sending gifts and medals to other nations. Xuan De (1426-1435) is the Nianhao (era) of Emperor Xuan Zong, the 5th emperor of Ming dynasty. In 1430, he dispatched Zheng He to announce his enthronement. The medal represented the highest authority of the emperor and was only delivered by a diplomat like Zheng He or his deputy. After Xuan Zong died, China isolated herself from the rest of the world for more than 400 years. Chinese started to come to America after 1850s as indenture labor mostly through the west coast to mine gold and build the railway. Few Chinese came through this part of the east coast where the railway was built exclusively by slaves and convicts. Today, this little town of 9000 has 4 Chinese by US Census in Year 2000. This brass disk is minimally decorated with little monetary or artistic value to Chinese laborers and European missionaries, who are the other possible but unlikely carriers of items from China. There should be quite a few medals of this kind in those days, but the unused ones were usually collected, melted down and recycled by the next emperor. Those countries along Zheng He’s route all suffered from multiple wars. Items like this were easily lost in looting.
The brass medal was discovered under 4 inches of soil in a scantly populated area several hundred miles inland from the east coast of America. After almost 600 years, the medal shows no apparent signs of corrosion, other than a tight coating of soil. Elemental analysis of the medal shows that the material is brass, a copper alloy with zinc. Xuan De was exactly the era when brass first became available, as exemplified by the famous Xuan De brass censers and coins.
The brass medal was unearthed at the center of Cherokee Indians’ homeland that became a major battleground with the first European settlers. Hundreds of Cherokee Indians were massacred in multiple battles. In 1776, right after the American Independence, the Cherokee’s land was grant to the soldiers in lieu of pension, resulting in another major battle. Could the Cherokees be the ones who lost the medal in the war? The Cherokee people were later driven more than a thousand miles away to Oklahoma in 1838-39 in a historical event known as the “Trail of Tears”, during which thousands of Cherokee Indians died. During the colonial era, 90-95% of the Cherokee perished. But why was the medal found inland? Did they obtain it from other tribes near the coast?

Sounds like a stretch, doesn't it? Well, sure it does. Dr. Lee admits that nothing is conclusive, but the artifact, if genuine, certainly raises some interesting questions, some of which may never be answered. (And even if it isn't genuine, I have to personally wonder how it ended up in that churchyard). One problem Dr. Lee mentioned is that the item is apparently quite unique. He is hoping that a similar specimen will appear somewhere else in the world, for purposes of comparison.

At least one critic, Geoff Wade, has scoffed at Dr. Lee's research, calling the medal a "shoddy fake" after examining his photographs of it. It's not surprising that some controversy has arisen, and that sides are being drawn in the debate over such a potentially large historical riddle. However, Dr. Lee doesn't really appear to be claiming much of anything; rather, he seems to be merely noting interesting cross-cultural historical parallels, some of which may be mere coincidence and some of which might have fascinating implications. I personally can attest to one thing- the medal was truly dug out of the ground, by me personally, as I have described. Beyond that, the rest remains an enigma.

Certainly the site is a strong candidate for Native American occupation long before the church was built: its high hill commands the surrounding land, and twice while digging in other churchyards in the area, I accidentally unearthed stone projectile points, one of them from the Paleolithic era. What is good real estate today has usually been considered good real estate for centuries, if not millennia. Down here in coastal Georgia on the sites I have hunted, I commonly find pre-Columbian pottery sherds mixed in with later European artifacts from the colonial era, where old plantations were built atop earlier native sites. I often hunt these sites when they are being cleared for modern construction, which will add yet another layer to the archaeological strata.

Below: stone projectile points of a whitish quartzlike material, found at unrelated but nearby sites.

Both were fairly shallow and coincidentally happened to be found at old churchyards in the same general locality.

Left: prehistoric paleolithic-era point found in 1994 (not long after the Ming medallion), while digging a piece of rusty, fairly modern trash.
Right: crude (unfinished?) point found in 1993, while digging an 1884 Seated Liberty dime.


More commentary by Dr. Lee on the Asiawind.com forums (regarding the slight irregularities in syntax, please note that English is not his native tongue):

"After 600 years, many leads for the cold case of Zheng He have vanished. I can only provide some observations and raise questions. These observations may or may not be proofs of anything. The purpose of my presenting these observations is mainly to draw more information either for or against the observations as evidence for Zheng He's fleet reaching America before Columbus did.

In reality, it won't change much of the present and future of America. If Zheng He did reach America before Columbus, all we have done is an amendment of the 'official' history that has been destroyed by the Ming critics of Zheng He. As one of the world's greatest navigators, Zheng He deserves vindication if he or his fleet did reach America before Columbus.

My observations are as follows:

* The medal is found in a major battlefield bwteen the native Cherokee and the first European immigrants.

* The Cherokee is recognized as the most intelligent tribe among the natives.

* The Cherokee people had a flag with the Big Dipper as a symbol, the same used for imperial China throughtout Song, Jin, Yuan, Ming Qing.

*The Big Dipper has been regarded as the most important constellation by the Chinese as far back as the first dragon motif in Henan, probably 6500 years ago. The Cherokee do not have records of other constellations.

* No other flags in the world has Big Dipper before 1900s. It is absent from all historical American flags.

* Zheng He used the Big Dipper as a guide to navigate in the northern hemisphere.

* Honoring the Big Dipper peaked in Ming dynasty when emperors strongly favored Daoism. (There are many observations associated with this).

* The territory between Cherokee and the east coast was inhabited by Catawba, a tribe with potters in every family. Today, they still make a traditional pot that resembles Xuan De censer.

* Catawba and Cherokee are rivaling neighboring tribes with trade relationship.

* Catawba language is now extinct, but the word for porcelain clay is retained in Cherokee language : "unaker", a word transliterated into English, similar to the name Uk-na(ke) as it is called by Ming Chinese. The (ke) part is silent in Chinese as Ru-Sheng, but in Cherokee language the ending is always sounded out. The term for porcelain clay was renamed to something else after Qing dynasty. This word "unaker" is listed in some English-Chinese dictionary as "Native American name for porcelain clay". The Cherokees do not have the "r" consonant, and they have another term for common clay.

* The porcelain industry in England was built on porcelain clay imported from the native Americans (Cherokee and Catwba) even though porcelain clay was a rich reserve in Cornwall, England. Processing natural clay to porcelain clay is a complex process that Europeans in industrial revolution era could not master, while native Americans did.

You may find more information by search for keywords listed above.

In the end, the medal only serves as a lead. The other observations remaining in native American culture are much harder to erase.

These observations weave into an incomplete picture, awaiting more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.

I am not making any conclusion on whether Zheng He made to America or not. In Ming official history, Zheng He's "death" in Calcutta was only supported by a bundle of his hair and a pair of his shoes. Notably missing are his head-dress, official gown and sword. I don't think any good forensic scientist today would accept the hair and shoes as a proof of death of anybody.

So, the mystery remains.

-SL Lee"

Indeed it does. My small personal mystery has become a much larger one, with far greater implications than I could have imagined. For this reason, I have decided to mentally catalog this mysterious medallion as one of my best finds; not perhaps so much for what it is, but for what it could be...

-R.W. Shinnick

Postscript: Dr. Lee has agreed to credit me with the find. I am not currently mentioned in any of the articles about it because he said he wanted my permission beforehand.

More information:

Dr. Lee's "Zheng He" page, from Asiawind.com, excerpted above

Cmdr. Gavin Menzies' "1421 Gallery" page showing the medal

Wikipedia.com page about "The 1421 Hypothesis", with further links into sources and controversies

"Evidence" thread on Asiawind Forums, excerpted above

My original Treasurenet Forum post about the artifact

This same narrative you just read, as it is posted on "The Best Of TreasureNet"


  • cladkingcladking Posts: 26,687 ✭✭✭✭✭

    << <i>Facinatingimage >>

    Well said.
    Tempus fugit.
  • Silvereagle82Silvereagle82 Posts: 1,219 ✭✭✭
    STANDING imageimageimageimageimageimageimage

    Now I see why your light was on again so often in the wee hours, the 9am-noon European ones. image


    DPOTD 3
  • BSBS Posts: 1,318 ✭✭✭
    Very cool.image
  • laurentyvanlaurentyvan Posts: 4,275 ✭✭✭
    I love these stories! And they're free...image
    One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics
    is that you end up being governed by inferiors. – Plato
  • drwstr123drwstr123 Posts: 6,905 ✭✭✭✭
    Thank you for the wonderful post. Mike
  • 1jester1jester Posts: 9,067 ✭✭✭

    << <i>Very cool.image >>


    And we laypersons can always tell our grandchildren that once, long ago on a forgotten Darkside board, the great LoweredMiniVan once even conversed with us mortals.


    "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." -Luke 11:9

    "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." -Deut. 6:4-5

    "For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He will save us." -Isaiah 33:22
  • danglendanglen Posts: 1,801 ✭✭✭
    Rob, your post looks like a candidate for a DPOTD image

    My Website

    "Everything I have is for sale except for my wife and my dog....and I'm not sure about one of them."

  • << <i>Rob, your post looks like a candidate for a DPOTD image >>

    Abso-fraggin'-lutely !!! image

    Although I have my own little theory about how that "whatzit" got there. Seems to me it's a bit more likely that some traveller (merchant marine, maybe) from North Carolina in the 1800's picked the thingie up in China or some other place in the Far East during his voyages, carried it in his pocket for a spell until he dropped it from his pocket whilst rough-housing with some kids after Sunday services at that little church ...

    Just a thought image
  • Very interesting story and find. Looking at the disk I would wonder why it did not show any patina. Of course if it was out of the ground most of the time it would not of formed any. So it would appear that the item was not buried for many years. Its shape suggests it is a brass mirror.

    As to the inscription please see the follwoing info at this link:


    In part it states:

    "The enthusiasm for a revival of learning about older artistic traditions resulted in a high demand for bronze vessels, particularly in tripod incense burners used for religious, courtly and scholarly purposes. For this reason, nearly all incense burners made since then bear the reign mark of Xuan De."

    I would say that what you have is an imitation of an old brass mirror with an ancient incription.
    As noted about the incense burners, makers of brass items will use ancient marks on their creations to make them look more valuable. Perhaps a Chinese laborer lost it in the area.

  • IosephusIosephus Posts: 838 ✭✭✭
    A great read! Thanks for taking the time to post all of that.
  • Greg brought this story up in conversation yesterday and forwarded the link. You write very good pieces Robertson. Thoroughly enjoyable.

    I'm not dismissive of the possibility of Chinese contact with North America by the 1400s but I'm doubtful of the chances of success for an eastward journey in a Chinese Junk of that time. While they were the largest and most advanced ships of the age (with bulkheads no less!) they lacked anything like a lanteen sail - relying on large lug sails.

    There is a clear reason for the sudden ability of Europeans to navigate the open Atlantic in the 15th and early 16th centuries and that is the adoption of the arab lanteen as a "steering" sail. With the incorporation of the triangular sail used on Arad dhows the slow, previously coastal fleets of Europe were able to tack into the wind and navigate more reliably in open waters. Their adaptation of the Arab astolabe also meant they could chart their course with some reliability and make corrections to course as well as return home and repeat (with some confidence and luck) an otherwise unplottale journey. The Chinese relied upon neither of these innovations despite the ability of Arab traders in their smaller dhows to return with regularity to Chinese ports to trade and to populate the islands of the Indian Ocean and South Asia. Their use of astronomy was also of a far more astrological nature - with great care given to exactly constructing a calendar that proved Imperial oneness with heaven and the court was not apt to distribute any tools or knowledge outside the court that would upend perceptions of the superlative essence of the Emperor and his astrologers. It was to their great humiliation to learn that the calendar of a northern kingdom was more accurate by three days than their own (resulting in a most awkward ambassadorial meeting of much prolonged protocol - put your three day adjustments in there).

    The Chinese Junks remained coastal vessels for all intents and purposes and relied on fortunate winds for any brief journeys over open waters. Their grand fleets reached to the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia & Indoonesia, India, Persia, Arabia, the Red Sea and as far as southern Africa. But they rarely ventured out of sight of the coast for more than a handful of days. If they were to accomplish the eastward journey across the broadest expanse of Ocean then they had either to travel northwards and be steered by coastal imposition to the Aleutians and down toward continental North America. The other route would have been one of pure fortune and misfortune due east and would have certainly stripped them of all necessities of sanity and sustenance in even the near of the endeavor.

    The Inuit, the Norse and the Polynesians are the only other people known to have navigated between the "old world" and the "new" Only the Polynesians possessed boats (with lanteen-like sails) adapted to the open sea. All relied upon the oar to maintain course and speed despite the whims of the winds. I would think it more likely, if the medal arrived in America prior to colonizing Europeans in the 16th century or later, that it would have been a token transported via either Varangian merchants to Viking voyagers (there is a town in Norway that has a decidedly Khazak lineage and the Varagians did venture to the orient) or that it travelled with Polynesians who had made contact directly or indirectly with the Chinese (there is a preColumbian Polynesian settlement site in, I believe, Peru).

    Okay - after all that long-windedness - I consider the medal and the story beautifully provocative (can you tell ; ) - and I'd love to hear more. I don't doubt the possibility of a fortunate arrival - just the mean likelihood. I do wonder what became of the fleets he sent east! I'll keep my ears open for any finds of wooden and bamboo and copper, bronze or iron nautical remains dating to the 1400s along our Pacific coast or finds of Chinese artifacts from the period in the west.

    Keep on digging!

    Clark aka (the long-winded) TokenTinker
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