World Pottery

Jomon Pottery: Everything you need to know

Jomon pottery is a riveting and ancient form of Japanese ceramics, dating back over 12,000 years. Named after the Jomon period (c. 14,000-300 BCE) during which it was created, this remarkable pottery is distinguished by its elaborate cord-marked patterns, ornamental designs, and earthenware materials.

In this article, we’ll examine Jomon pottery’s history, characteristics, techniques, and cultural significance, offering a comprehensive overview of this fascinating and enduring art form.

History of Jomon Pottery

The Jomon Period

The Jomon period is a prehistoric era in Japanese history that is thought to have lasted from around 14,000 to 300 BCE. It was a time when hunter-gatherer communities thrived throughout the Japanese archipelago, and the people developed unique cultural practices, artistic expressions, and technological advancements. The term “Jomon” means “cord-marked” in Japanese and refers to the distinctive decorative technique used on the pottery produced during this period.

Discovery and Excavation

Jomon pottery was first discovered in the late 19th century by the American zoologist Edward S. Morse, who conducted archaeological research in Japan. Since then, numerous Jomon pottery artifacts have been unearthed at various sites throughout Japan, providing valuable insights into the lives, beliefs, and artistic practices of the Jomon people.

Chronological Development

Jomon pottery can be broadly divided into six main phases based on stylistic and technological developments:

  • Incipient Jomon (c. 14,000-7500 BCE): Earliest examples of Jomon pottery, characterized by simple shapes and rudimentary cord-marked patterns.
  • Initial Jomon (c. 7500-4000 BCE): Introduction of more complex shapes and decorative techniques, such as appliqué and relief.
  • Early Jomon (c. 4000-2500 BCE): Continued development of decorative techniques, focusing on elaborate and intricate designs.
  • Middle Jomon (c. 2500-1500 BCE): Height of Jomon pottery production, featuring the most ornate and sophisticated designs, as well as the emergence of large, ritualistic pottery vessels.
  • Late Jomon (c. 1500-1000 BCE): Decline in the production and complexity of Jomon pottery, with a shift towards simpler forms and designs.
  • Final Jomon (c. 1000-300 BCE): Last phase of Jomon pottery, marked by a further simplification of forms and the emergence of new pottery styles influenced by the Yayoi period.

Characteristics of Jomon Pottery

Materials and Construction

Jomon pottery is typically made from earthenware clay that has been mixed with organic materials, such as crushed shells or plant fibers. This mixture, known as “temper,” helps improve the clay’s workability and prevent shrinkage and cracking during the firing process. Jomon pottery is typically fired at relatively low temperatures, ranging from 600 to 900 degrees Celsius, resulting in a porous and fragile final product.

Shapes and Forms

Jomon pottery encompasses a wide range of shapes and forms, reflecting these ancient ceramics’ diverse functions and purposes. Some of the most common Jomon pottery forms include:

  • Storage jars: Large, round-bottomed vessels used for storing food and other perishable goods.
  • Cooking pots: Smaller, flat-bottomed vessels with wide mouths, designed for cooking food over an open fire.
  • Bowls and cups: Small, shallow vessels used for eating and drinking.

In addition to these utilitarian forms, Jomon pottery also includes more elaborate and sculptural pieces, such as:

  • Flame-style pottery: Characterized by their dramatic, flame-like rim projections, these vessels were likely used for ceremonial or ritualistic purposes.
  • Figurines: Small, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic clay figures that may have been used as talismans, toys, or religious objects.

Jomon Pottery Decorative Techniques

One of the most distinctive features of Jomon pottery is its elaborate and intricate decoration. The primary decorative technique used during the Jomon period is the cord-marking technique, which involves pressing cords or ropes into the wet clay to create a patterned surface. Other common decorative techniques include:

  • Appliqué: The addition of clay coils or strips to the surface of the pottery to create raised patterns or designs.
  • Relief: The sculpting of the pottery’s surface to create a three-dimensional effect.
  • Incising: The use of sharp tools to carve or etch designs into the clay surface.
  • Puncturing: The creation of small holes or perforations in the pottery surface, either for decorative purposes or to aid in releasing steam during cooking.

Jomon Pottery Production Techniques

Hand-Building

Jomon pottery was created using a hand-building technique known as coil construction. This process involves rolling out long, thin coils of clay and stacking them on top of one another to build up the vessel’s walls. The coils are then smoothed and blended together to create a seamless surface. This labor-intensive technique allowed Jomon potters to create various shapes and forms, from simple, utilitarian vessels to complex, sculptural pieces.

Firing

Jomon pottery was typically fired in simple, open-air pit kilns dug into the ground and lined with stones or clay. The pottery vessels were placed inside the kiln and surrounded by a layer of combustible materials, such as wood or straw. The kiln was then covered with a layer of clay or turf to help contain the heat and regulate the airflow. Once the kiln was lit, the pottery would be fired for several hours, reaching temperatures of around 600-900 degrees Celsius.

Cultural Significance of Jomon Pottery

Artistic Expression

Jomon pottery provides a unique insight into the artistic sensibilities and creative practices of the Jomon people. The intricate and elaborate designs found on many Jomon pottery pieces suggest a high level of artistic skill and a deep appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the natural world. Jomon pottery is also an early example of human creativity and artistic expression, illustrating the fundamental human desire to create and adorn objects with meaning and beauty.

Spiritual and Ritualistic Importance

Many Jomon pottery vessels, particularly the more elaborate and sculptural pieces, are believed to have held spiritual or ritualistic significance for the Jomon people. These vessels may have been used in ceremonies, offerings, or other religious practices, reflecting the importance of pottery in the spiritual lives of these ancient communities.

Social and Economic Value

Jomon pottery also played a crucial role in the social and economic lives of the Jomon people. The production and exchange of pottery vessels likely facilitated trade and communication between different Jomon communities, promoting social interaction and cultural exchange. Pottery technology’s development also significantly impacted the Jomon people’s ability to store and process food, contributing to the growth and stability of their societies.

Jomon Pottery Today

Preservation and Display

Jomon pottery artifacts are highly valued for their historical, cultural, and artistic significance. Many of these ancient ceramics are now housed in museums and cultural institutions worldwide, where they are carefully preserved and displayed for public viewing and study. These collections help to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Jomon pottery, as well as the broader history and culture of the Jomon period.

Contemporary Interest and Influence

Jomon pottery’s unique aesthetic and technical qualities continue to inspire and influence contemporary ceramic artists both in Japan and abroad. Many modern potters have drawn on the forms, techniques, and decorative styles of Jomon pottery in their work, paying homage to this ancient and enduring art form while also reinterpreting and reinventing it for a new generation.

Educational Programs and Workshops

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the study and practice of Jomon pottery techniques, with numerous educational programs and workshops offered in Japan and worldwide. These programs aim to preserve and promote the traditional skills and knowledge of Jomon pottery and foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of this unique art form among a wider audience.

Iconic Jomon Pottery Artifacts and Sites

Dogu Figurines

Dogu are small, anthropomorphic clay figurines that were produced during the Jomon period. These distinctive figures are characterized by their stylized, often abstract, human forms and intricate surface decoration. Although the exact purpose of Dogu remains a mystery, they are believed to have held spiritual or ritualistic significance for the Jomon people, possibly serving as talismans or votive offerings. Numerous examples of Dogu figurines have been discovered at Jomon sites throughout Japan, with some of the most famous examples including the “Shakoki Dogu” and the “Jomon Venus.”

Large Storage Jars

Large storage jars, or tsubo, are among the most impressive examples of Jomon pottery. These monumental vessels were primarily used for storing food and other perishable goods and are characterized by their massive size, thick walls, and intricate cord-marked decoration. Some of the largest Jomon storage jars can reach heights of over 1 meter and weigh several hundred kilograms. These remarkable artifacts are a testament to the skill and ambition of Jomon potters and offer valuable insights into the daily lives and food storage practices of the Jomon people.

Flame-style Pottery

Flame-style pottery is perhaps Jomon pottery’s most iconic and visually striking form. These extraordinary vessels are characterized by their dramatic, flame-like rim projections, which can extend upwards and outwards from the vessel’s body to create a sense of movement and dynamism. Flame-style pottery is thought to have held ritualistic or ceremonial significance, and examples have been found at several important Jomon sites, including the Sannai-Maruyama site in Aomori Prefecture.

Jomon Pottery Sites

Numerous Jomon pottery sites have been discovered throughout Japan, providing valuable insights into the distribution and production of Jomon ceramics. Some of the most significant Jomon pottery sites include:

  • Sannai-Maruyama Site: Located in Aomori Prefecture, the Sannai-Maruyama site is one of the largest and most important Jomon archaeological sites in Japan. Excavations at the site have uncovered numerous examples of Jomon pottery, including flame-style vessels, storage jars, and cooking pots, as well as a range of other artifacts and structures.
  • Omori Shell Midden: The Omori Shell Midden, located in Tokyo, is another significant Jomon site that has yielded a wealth of pottery artifacts. The site is particularly notable for the large number of pottery sherds that have been recovered, which have provided valuable insights into the development and chronology of Jomon pottery.
  • Fukui Cave: Situated in Nagasaki Prefecture, Fukui Cave is an important archaeological site that has yielded some of the oldest known examples of Jomon pottery. Radiocarbon dating of pottery fragments from the site has confirmed that they date back to the Incipient Jomon period, providing valuable evidence for the origins and early development of Jomon ceramics.

Techniques and Styles Unique to Jomon Pottery

Coiling Technique

As mentioned earlier, Jomon pottery was primarily created using the coil construction technique. However, it is essential to note that the coiling technique used in Jomon pottery is unique in its execution compared to other pottery traditions. Jomon potters would often leave the coils partially visible, with the overlapping layers creating a distinctive, textured surface that was further enhanced by the application of cord-marking and other decorative techniques.

Cord-marking Variations

While cord-marking is a signature feature of Jomon pottery, there is considerable variation in how this technique was applied throughout the Jomon period. Early Jomon pottery features relatively simple and uniform cord-marked patterns, while later periods saw the development of more complex and intricate designs. Some of these variations include using different types of cords, multiple layers of cord-marking, and incorporating other decorative techniques alongside cord-marking, such as incising or puncturing.

Regional Styles

Jomon pottery also exhibits a rich diversity of regional styles, reflecting the Japanese archipelago’s varied geographical and cultural landscapes. Each region developed its own distinctive pottery traditions, with variations in form, decoration, and production techniques. Some of the most notable regional styles of Jomon pottery include:

  • Kanto Style: Originating from the Kanto region of eastern Japan, Kanto-style Jomon pottery is characterized by its bold, geometric cord-marked patterns and distinctive vessel shapes, such as the “goggle-shaped” pot.
  • Tokai Style: Found primarily in the Tokai region of central Japan, Tokai-style Jomon pottery features more subdued and organic cord-marked designs, as well as a greater emphasis on sculptural forms and relief decoration.
  • Hokkaido Style: Produced in the northern island of Hokkaido, Hokkaido-style Jomon pottery is notable for its relatively simple and utilitarian forms, reflecting the harsher climate and more limited resources of the region.

Conservation and Study of Jomon Pottery

Conservation Efforts

The conservation of Jomon pottery artifacts is a critical aspect of preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the Jomon period. Many Jomon pottery artifacts are fragile and susceptible to damage or deterioration, particularly when exposed to changes in temperature, humidity, or light levels. Therefore, these artifacts must be stored and displayed appropriately to ensure long-term preservation.

Research and Study

In addition to conservation efforts, the ongoing research and study of Jomon pottery are crucial to deepening our understanding of this ancient art form and the broader cultural context of the Jomon period. Archaeologists, art historians, and other scholars continue to investigate and analyze Jomon pottery artifacts, using various scientific techniques and methodologies to uncover new insights and information.

Education and Outreach

Educational programs and outreach initiatives are also vital in raising awareness and appreciation of Jomon pottery among the general public and the next generation of artists and scholars. Museums, cultural institutions, and universities play a crucial role in this regard, offering a range of exhibitions, workshops, and courses that focus on Jomon pottery and its cultural significance. By engaging with a wider audience, these initiatives help to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jomon pottery and its enduring artistic legacy.

Conclusion

Jomon pottery is a captivating and ancient art form that offers a unique window into the lives, beliefs, and artistic practices of the prehistoric communities that inhabited the Japanese archipelago. The distinctive cord-marked patterns, intricate designs, and varied shapes and forms of Jomon pottery reveal the skill and creativity of the Jomon people and their deep connection to the natural world.

When was Jomon pottery first produced?

Jomon pottery dates back to the Jomon period, which lasted from around 14,000 to 300 BCE. The earliest examples of Jomon pottery are believed to be more than 12,000 years old, making it one of the oldest known forms of pottery in the world.

What is the primary decorative technique used in Jomon pottery?

The most distinctive decorative technique used in Jomon pottery is the cord-marking technique, which involves pressing cords or ropes into the wet clay surface to create patterned designs.

What materials were used to make Jomon pottery?

Jomon pottery is made from earthenware clay that has been mixed with organic materials, such as crushed shells or plant fibers, to improve its workability and prevent shrinkage and cracking during the firing process.

How was Jomon pottery fired?

Jomon pottery was typically fired in simple, open-air pit kilns dug into the ground and lined with stones or clay. The pottery would be fired at relatively low temperatures, ranging from 600 to 900 degrees Celsius.

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