Jomon pottery: potter and clay endure

As far as exhibitions go, sometimes small can be beautiful.  Last week at the British Museum to see the Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition, I happened to wander into a side room where an exhibition consisting of just three objects was on display. Flame and water pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan is a concise, yet revelatory display of three ‘flame’ and ‘water’ pots from ancient Japan.

The Museum owns one Jōmon pot (above) which was featured in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. That pot is accompanied by two pots on loan from Nagaoka City in the Niigata prefecture in Japan.  In themselves, these objects are fascinating to look at, but the wider story they tell is one that is both interesting and significant.

The earliest pots found in Japan date from around 16,500 years ago. Pottery was not invented in the Middle East or North Africa until several thousand years later.  The Jōmon people lived in the period between  12,500-1000 BC on the Japanese archipelago.  The term Jōmon means ‘cord-marked’ in Japanese, and is derived from the decorative markings on the pottery. The pots themselves were made for a number of reasons and are both functional and aesthetically beautiful, and open a window to mysterious culture from the distant past.

Jomon pots are the oldest pots in the world. For the first time, pots allowed people to boil foods such as nuts and shellfish to make them edible. As Neil MacGregor put it in A History of the World in 100 Objects:

It was in Japan that the world’s first pottery was born – and with it, possibly the world’s first stew. [...]  The world’s pots are so ubiquitous that we take all of them for granted, but human history is told and written in pots perhaps more than in anything else; as Robert Browning put it: ‘Time’s wheel runs back or stops; potter and clay endure’.

The oldest Jomon pot (top) is pretty underwhelming to look at. It’s a cooking pot made about 7000 years ago –  2000 years earlier than the flame and crown pots displayed alongside it. The rim is decorated with marks incised with a stick or finger nail and the cord-markings are clearly visible. It was probably uncovered by a farmer in the 19th century and spotted by a tea master who thought it would make a fine water vessel (mizusashi) for a tea gathering. Gold leaf and lacquer was applied to the interior of the prehistoric vessel and a wooden lid was constructed with a snail decoration, alluding to the pot’s unearthing from the soil.

It’s made of brown-grey clay, a simple round pot about six inches high, six inches across at the top, with straight sides and a flat base, and it was made in Japan.  It was built up with coils of clay and then, into the outside, fibres were pressed, so that it looks and feels like a basket made of clay.

The protrusions on the the rim of the Jomon crown pot (above) may have been inspired by the architecture of Jomon houses. The crown pot appears rigid in comparison to the fluid form of the flame pot displayed alongside. These contrasting styles seem to have been important in Jomon culture and figured also in the arrangement of buildings and burials.

This flame pot is around 5000 years old, the same age as Stonehenge. It takes its name from the elaborate flame-like protrusions around the rim. The rims and mouths of these pottery vessels held special importance for the Jomon, as they would have been the focal point for the family gathered around the hearth.

Jomon pots were used as cooking vessels, often sunk into the hearth to aid heat convection. Cooking was an important activity for the Jomon people and they constructed elaborate fireplaces. The hearth gave warmth and light as well as providing a social focus for the family unit. Analysis of the carbonised remains found in many of these vessels show that the pots were used to make soups and Jomon ‘cookies’ made of nuts, acorns and animal fat. Apart from cooking, Jomon ceramics were also used for pouring, serving, storage, and sometimes for burials and other rituals.

Each family group made its own ceramics. It is thought from academic studies that they were constructed by women,  though the museum’s interpretation suggests there is no concrete evidence for this yet. Jomon potters did not use a wheel but constructed the vessels by hand, coiling the clay and then paddling it to firm up the sides. Various types of cord were made from twisted plant fibres and they were used to impress different patterns on the vessel’s surface. The pots would then have been fired in wood-fed firing pits.

Jomon pottery is unique, not just because it is the oldest yet discovered, but also because they were made in a hunter-gatherer culture.  Pots are usually created by cultures only after they have made the transition from hunter-gathering
to farming, as it is very difficult to carry pottery and live a nomadic lifestyle. However, the Jomon were unique because although they foraged, hunted and fished throughout the year unusually they lived in semi-settled villages. They were able to do this because they lived in a particularly food-rich environment, as explained in this panel.

Pots enabled the Jomon to take advantage of these resources, as many of their key foodstuffs, such as acorns, were toxic unless cooked. Pots were also used to boil shellfish, forcing the shells to open and allowing access to the meat inside.

Finally, the exhibition tells how the rediscovery of the Jomon culture since the 19th century has played an important role in the evolving idea of what constitutes Japan’s cultural heritage.  Prior to the Second World War, the Jomon people were mostly viewed as a primitive aboriginal culture that was completely superseded by the arrival of rice-farming
Yayoi people from the Asian continent in around 300 BC .  This view changed significantly from the late 1940s onwards. Now many see Jomon material culture as a sophisticated artistic tradition in its own right and see  evidence for interaction between the Jomon and Yayoi populations.  More and more is being discovered about Jōmon origins and culture, and  the exhibition examines the imagery and symbolism on the pots, as well as showing how Jōmon pots have been an inspiration to modern Japanese culture – with references in music, manga, modern art.

As an example of this, music inspired by Jomon culture was played by Yamagami Susumu, who performs on a shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) and a tsugaru shamisen (three-stringed instrument).

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2 thoughts on “Jomon pottery: potter and clay endure

  1. Not sad, so much as a testament to the impermanence of much with which we surround ourselves. They’re remembered as potters because pottery survives – and because songs and sagas fade from memory (this being a pre-paper, pre-written word society).

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