A Great MacGuffin

Someone recently sent information about a small Chinese seal made from carnelian “found lying on open ground in the bush in Dar es Salaam (East Africa) in 1948 and may well have been lying there for many years. The seal is well made and the intaglio is very finely and accurately carved. I have shown it to the British Museum in London who tell me that the carving says wan bao (ten thousand treasures). They think it probably dates from around the 17th or 18th century.”

There’s little to add to the response from the British Museum. Their translation is correct: wanbao 萬寶 – which might be translated as “10,000 treasures” or just “myriad treasures.” Carnelian is a very hard semi-precious gemstone and would have been carved by a specialist and not by the average scholar-artist (and is probably the reason why it is so well-preserved). It is what are referred to as “leisure seals” with phrases of importance to the user, though it’s impossible to know in this case what it might refer to. The tall narrow shape of the stone was not commonly used before the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), which fits within the date range given.

The seal’s current owner made this impression in wax which, in this case, did no harm since wax won’t stick to such a hard stone. This is something like how all early Chinese seals would have looked since they were made to be pressed into clay. You can see in this picture how finely carved the seal is (it’s about the size of a dime). And, since carnelian is hard enough that it can’t be cut with a knife, for such a hard stone it’s necessary to grind the design into the stone—resulting in the straight-sided lines with squared-off ends.

Film maker George Lucas defined a MacGuffin as “the object of everybody’s search.” This seal would make a great MacGuffin since you’ll have to come up with your own story about how it happened to be found in what seems like such an odd location.

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