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Watch Artifacts online: Episode 3 The Mystery of Porcelain

When pieces of Chinese porcelain were first seen in the West, they were so rare and exquisite that they very quickly became more valuable than gold. Why? Because Europeans really had no idea how porcelain was made, and the medieval Italian merchants who first brought porcelain to Europe couldn't believe it was man made. The only thing that they could compare it to was a cowry shell, because a cowry shell has that same exquisite smooth surface as a piece of porcelain. In Italian, a cowry shell is called a "Porcellino" - a little pig - because it kind of looks like a little suckling pig, hence our word 'porcelain'. The Europeans were immediately obsessed with the secret of porcelain manufacture, leading to all kinds of crazy theories: Some thought it was crushed eggshells; others thought it was a special fish paste, which they would leave to ripen in the earth for one hundred years. No wonder it would be centuries before Europeans would even begin to unravel the great mystery of porcelain. It took the Chinese themselves thousands of years to discover the secret of porcelain - the product of a search for perfection which began more than six millennia ago.

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