Namely, the Jōmon period (about 14,000-300 B.C in ancient Japan) holds its place in history for some of the oldest pottery in the world. Jomon represents simple yet intricate cord pattern impressions or reliefs, even by today’s standards. Jomon crockery has played an inspiring role in the modern ceramic world and continues to be sculpted by many artists around the globe today. But what exactly is the history behind such an ancient art form?
The Roots of Prehistoric Japan
The Jomon culture was mainly concentrated in central Honshu, but Jomon sites have been discovered all across Japan. The Jomon people lived in small communities and survived primarily by fishing, hunting, and gathering, and some excavations suggest that they used an early form of agriculture.
The early Jomon people lived in caves, but eventually moved on to live in pit houses. For tools, they mainly used bows and arrows, along with stone tools and flint for necessary survival purposes. The Jomon period steadily came to an end when natives from mainland Asia and the South Pacific migrated to Japan, bringing with them their rice-farming techniques, religious customs, earthenware construction methods, and metallurgy, bringing Japan into the Yayoi period (300 B.C-300 A.D).
The fact that Jomon crockery exists emphasizes that the Jomon people were not nomadic (who did not or could not use pottery) and most likely lived an idle lifestyle.
Main Uses of Jomon Earthenware
Jomon earthenware had practical uses such as holding food while eating and food storage. For cooking, pots had pointed bottoms, and the more rounded pieces were either jars, which stored food such as fruits, vegetables, or tea, or bowls for eating. Later on during the Jomon period, more complex vessels like teapots with spouts were made.
Aside from functional pieces, the Jomon people also made ceramic items such as pendants, jewelry, and dogū clay figurines. These items were primarily used for religious worship or had some spiritual value.
The Making of Jomon Crockery
Jomon pieces were handmade using earthenware clay and afterwards was wrapped with a cord or rope which was pressed into the clay to create intricate designs. The piece was finally fired at a temperature of 500-700 degrees Celsius (932-1,292 degrees Fahrenheit) in either a ditch or an open fire pit since the potter’s wheel was unknown at the time. Some of the materials in the clay included crushed seashells, mica, and natural fibers.
Jomon Ceramic Design and Urushi-Ware
The most obvious characteristic on Jomon ceramics is their cord impressions, but there were also other patterns made by nail indentations, applique, and shell-reliefs. There were many types of local crockery made between the different communities, and many of these have been traded resulting in a broad trade network that existed amongst these regions.
Three types of earthenware developed during the advancement of ceramics in the middle Jomon period:
- Katsusaka earthenware of the mountainous people of central and western Japan
- Umataka earthenware of the northern coast
- Otamadai earthenware of the area near today’s Tokyo Bay
Katsusaka crockery had reptilian and amphibious animals carved into its pieces, especially snakes. Umataka crockery is known for its elaborate carvings around the rims of their pieces, and some are shaped like flames. Otamadai crockery was simpler than the Katsusaka and Umataka style and was usually reddish-brown in color, sometimes having the same designs from the other two mentioned regions.
The urushi tree’s lacquering properties was first discovered by the Jomon people, and the liquid from this tree has both practical and aesthetic values. It gives a pottery piece a gorgeous red glaze and protects it from cracks, and red was a color of great spiritual importance to the Jomon.
Some things are still unknown about the Jomon period, and objects like dogū may always remain a mystery. Nevertheless, Jomon earthenware has been a great insight into ancient Japan life and how today’s potters are inspired by the advanced techniques of Jomon potters.