Jomon crafts and what they were for

An ornate Jomon earthen earring

When they were not hunting or gathering their food for survival, the Jomon people spent many hours on the many crafts that they practised making.

From excavated finds of many Jomon artifacts, we know that although the Jomon people were a hunter-gathering people, they were not primitive. Among the Jomon society were many craftsmen and craftswomen who made many sophisticated things that were sometimes practical for daily use, but often that were just beautiful to the eye and that had esoteric meaning or abstract value. 

Pottery was one of the most useful crafts for the Jomon, and this can be seen from the large numbers of pots and other clay vessels that they produced. Jomon women are thought to have produced pottery for household daily uses such as cooking and storage, but also for decoration and for special ceremonies. If you’ve ever tried to move a heavy terracotta flowerpot, you’ll know that it’s no fun lugging one of these around…especially on foot. The fact that the Jomon people made so many pots tells us one important thing, these hunter-gathering people couldn’t have been wandering around all the time (i.e., they couldn’t have been nomadic) and must have settled down somewhere at least for part of the year (they were sedentary or semi-sedentary). Find out why archaeologists go potty over Jomon pottery finds, and about the types of Jomon pottery and their uses

Visit the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History’s diorama to see what life for the craftsmen in the village might have been like. 

Dogu or Jomon earthen figurine

Apart from clay pots and vessels, the Jomon people made thousands and thousands of fascinating clay figurines (called dogu) or clay dolls. Due to the unusual contexts in which they were found, sometimes appearing to have been scattered or broken on purpose, scholars and scientists are pretty sure these must have been used for ceremonial rituals and weren’t dolls for children. Find out more about the Mysterious Clay Doll.  The Jomon people made a range of items for their festive celebrations and ritual ceremonies.

Apart from pots and clay (as well as stone) figurines, they also made various kinds of clay masks, stone batons or rods and swords. Other items found in large quantities in northern Tohoku and Hokuriku, included triangular clay and stone tablets, ball-shaped clay artifacts, sword-like (or seiryuto-shaped) stone tools with long handles, crown-shaped stone and clay artifacts, dokko-shaped (resembles a tool used by Buddhist monks) stone tools and gyobutsu (the word means imperial treasures) stone bars. 

The Jomon people also made a great many jewellery and ornamental items. They made shell bracelets, stone and clay small beads, large jade beads, pulley-shaped earrings, slit-shaped earrings (called ketsu), magatama comma-shaped jade pendants and deer antler pendants that Jomon men probably wore at their waists. 

The Jomon craftsmen made many things out of bone as well. Bone spoons made for ritual purposes:

Image Source

There were even specialist sites or temporary base camps where the Jomon community focused on the making of a certain craft such as figurines, earrings or shell bracelets. Some of the shell bracelets were made from shell materials that were exotic. For example, the Patella Scutellaria optima shell could be found only in a few areas like Izu and Yakushima in the southwestern seas.

Many of the Jomon crafts had practical uses for daily life. Cordage was one example. The Jomon people made twisted cords for rope, baskets and netting. They also made cloth fabric from nettle and hemp plants that they could wear, and many wooden items that they could use and which they lacquered to make them waterproof and heat-resistant. 

The Jomon people may have invented the lacquering technology. It was an extremely complicated process — refining urushi-poison oak sap and making lacquer took several months and was a specialized task. Iron oxide (colcothar) and cinnabar (mercury sulfide) were used as red pigments to produce red lacquer. The lacquer was then applied with great skill to pottery, wooden bowls, baskets, combs, decorated bows and other items. Sometimes, burial clothes to be worn by the dead were also lacquered. The work produced lasting and beautiful objects that added colour to their lives. 

The earliest lacquered objects have been found from the Initial Jomon period (Kakinoshima B. site). Many lacquered objects have turned up during the Early Jomon period which means the lacquer technology had become an established part of Jomon culture by this time. One notable find of an elegant red and black lacquered wooden water jug was excavated from the Kurokawa village in Niigata prefecture.

Red lacquered water receptacle made of wood

The Sannai-Maruyama site has turned up reddish wooden lacquerware with iron oxide applied.

Yarn was lacquered red and dried and then tied and shaped into balls at the Wakeyachi A site in Niigata.

Ball of yarn lacquered red

From the Korekawa Nakai site was found a lacquered wooden bowl-like basket made from tree bark, with a lid that was made by bending and weaving bark. It has a beautiful cloud pattern and was lacquered over.

Bowl with wooden centre and patterned rim

The age of the earliest lacquered artefacts from Sannai Maruyama has been found to date to 5500 years ago — the oldest from anywhere in Japan. According to the Kyoto National Museum, Japanese lacquerware culture is derived from Chinese techniques, see Chinese Carved Lacquerware although others (Hudson) believe “that Jomon lacquer technology was developed independently in Japan rather than being introduced from China as once believed”.

Woodworking or carpentry was already an important craft or skill for the Jomon people, especially for building. From the Sakuramachi site in Toyama prefecture of the Middle Jomon period, a large number of wooden items, including more than 100 wooden beams, crosspieces, and posts were found.

It appears that the Jomon people were skilled in working with wood from an early period. The Jomon people cut down trees to size for building things and for erecting buildings. The oldest piece of wood used in Jomon construction is reported to have been found in the Yokoo site in Oita prefecture is dated to 10,000 years ago. The 3.8 meter-long piece of wood (had six circular joint holes in it about 3 centimeters in diameter and) is thought to be a roof beam from a house built on stilts.Several other pieces of Jomon construction timber from the Oyabe site in Toyama prefecture dated to 4,500 years ago, revealed that the Jomon people were already using an advanced construction technique called watariago-shiguchi in Japanese. The technique that joined building timbers together with a mortise and tennon joint into the form of a wooden cross, was used in the 7th century structure of the Horyuji Temple which is oldest surviving wooden building in the world.     

The Jomon people made wooden frames for the walls of storage pits and for the posts of their buildings. They chopped down and hollowed out trees to make dugouts or canoes and made paddles to steer them. They learnt to use and work with many kinds of trees: chestnut, Japanese cedar tree (Cryptomeria japonica), mukunoki (Aphananthe aspera), inugaya (Cephalotaxus harringtonia), Japanese nutmeg (Torreya nucifera or kaya), camphor (Cinamonium camphora or kusunoki). 

Source readings and references:

HABU, Junko  Ancient Jomon of Japan. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

TOTMAN, Conrad A History of Japan (Blackwell History of the World)

BROWN, Delmar The Cambridge history of Japan. Vol.1: Ancient Japan

Sannai Maruyama: A New View of Prehistoric Japan, Mark Hudson, Asia-Pacific Magazine, No. 2 May 1996 pp. 47-48.

“Jomon and Wetland” Special Exhibition at the National Museum of Japanese History

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