Jomon pottery… why archaeologists go potty over them

Archaeologists have literally gone potty over Jomon pots since hundreds of thousands of pieces of Jomon pottery turned up in archaeological digs or building construction sites. As pottery was produced in such massive numbers, it became clear that the Jomon people were carrying on a huge industry and weren’t just primitive Stone Age hunters. 



Were the Jomon people the inventors of the first pot?

One reason for the interest is that the earliest Jomon pottery sherds are the earliest pottery in the world. Although a few potsherds with equally early dates have turned up in Siberia and in China (Xianrenjiang Cave in Jiangxi), prehistoric pottery in these places were never produced in numbers anywhere near those of the Jomon period.


The beginning of pottery and a semi-settled lifestyle or sedentary life in Japan begins some 13,500 – 15,500 years ago. The Incipient Jomon period, was really a kind of Epi palaeolithic, a palaeolithic era with pottery. From excavated finds, scholars believe that the earliest pottery in Japan (like that in the USSR Maritime province) was produced by riverside hunter fishers who had microlithic blade technology.

Why was the simple and humble pot such an important invention?


People for the first time had non-leaky waterproof container. It could be used to boil, stew or steam food, so they could now eat new kinds of foods – leafy vegetables that would have burnt or disintegrated to nothing over a fire grill, shellfish that opened easily, acorns had their poisons boiled out. Very young children and toothless old people could now eat soft-boiled foods. Food could be stored to tide them over in times when food became scarce. The humble pot improved the lives of the hunter-gatherer immensely.


Artistic and religious expressions  

Another reason why scholars and scientists are taken by Jomon pottery is because the beauty, charm and sophistication of much of Jomon pottery is unrivalled in the prehistoric world. The most florid and elaborate pottery were made by people who lived during the Middle Jomon period and who lived in the rugged mountainous interior of Honshu island. The large, highly decorated pots suggest village chiefs competing in lavish feasting.

Despite the fact that all Jomon pottery were hand made and low fired without specially constructed kilns, Jomon potters were very creative – their pots were greatly varied in their shapes and rich ways in which they were decorated. Besides the famous cord-markings (from which the name Jomon was derived), other kinds of decorations included incision, stamping, smoothing, application of strips of clay, sculpturing, and coloring with red or black lacquer.


Jomon pots are greatly varied in their shapes: The most common vessels were deep bowls or jars. But the Jomon also made a lot of pottery with other forms: shallow bowls, vessels with narrow mouths, often with long necks and vessels with spouts. Some of the early pots had a unique shape with a square mouth and flat bottom. There were round and pointed bottomed pots and there were flat bottomed pots. Less common were the lamp-shaped pottery and incense-burner shaped ones.

The Middle Jomon era showed the greatest variety … the many large jars, ewers and drinking bowls are also evidence that brewing had been discovered, whether they drank beverages of grain or fermented wines made from wild grapes.

Jomon pots were decorated in many rich and different ways. Besides the famous cord-markings (from which the name Jomon was derived), there were pots with twill or feathered markings, bean, shell patterns and fingernail-shaped patterns. Other kinds of decorations included incision, stamping, smoothing, application of strips of clay, sculpturing, and coloring with red or black lacquer.

Because they decorated their pottery with complex imagery of humans, animals, and abstract forms, we know that the Jomon people were highly expressive and religious people who believed in the magical and spirit world. Jomon pottery reveals a lot about the Jomon world, and that Jomon beliefs and religion were very rich in symbolism and differed from tribe to tribe and over time.

While many of the earthern pots were made by households, archaeologists also know from recent studies that that some special sites produced pottery and some of these sites acted as communication and distribution centers for other smaller regions. Jomon pottery is found in Ryukyu far to the south as well as on islands distant from the mainland. This means that the Jomon people must have transported their pottery by boats and probably traded them.



What were Jomon pots used for?


Many of the common upright Jomon pots were used for cooking and storage, narrow-necked vessels for steaming, the smaller bowls for serving food and drink,  and sometimes Jomon pottery pieces were used simply for display and decorating the home.

Large pots were used by coastal people to evaporate seawater and obtain salt which was traded to groups living inland so that they could make up for the lack of salt in their diet since they ate mostly vegetable foods.

Apart from pots for cooking and storage, pottery ornaments, earrings, and ritual objects were also created. Lamp-shaped pottery, often found together with clay figurines, and often finely made, were likely used for ritual purposes or special ceremonies.

Deep jars were sometimes used as burial containers or funerary jars especially for burying infants and children. 



Updates on archaeological findings of early ceramics-cum-lithics assemblages in the Russian Far East, Amur River basin forming a perspective of the context of early ceramics in the broad area of the Sea of Japan basin:

ZHUSHCHIKHOVSKAYA, Irina, On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East   The oldest Russian Far East ceramics are accompanied by stone artifacts made in the blade technique Early ceramics from the Lower Amur River region now rival the very early ceramics discovered in the Japanese archipelago. Excerpted from the article:

“Sites containing simple ceramics were discovered in the Amur River basin, the Primorie  (Maritime) region, and on Sakhalin Island. These sites are widely dated from between 13,000 to 6000 B.P.” “In the Russian Far East, the problem of pottery-making origins has been explored only recently (Derevyanko and Medvedev 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995; Garkovik and Zhushchikhovskaya 1995; Golubev and Zhushchikhovskaya 1987; Zhushchikhovskaya 1995a, 1995b)”

Early ceramics assemblages from various regions in the northern part of the Sea of Japan basin and the Russian Far East are characterized by certain technological and morphological features. Two types of ceramic pastes can be distinguished, the first employing natural clay without artificial temper (Ustinovka-3, Almazinka) and the second using clay with plant fiber artificial temper (Gasya, Khummy, Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya culture, Chernigovka-1). Not all of the pottery assemblages provide evidence of forming techniques. At least three can be identified:
a moulding technique, perhaps in conjunction with the use of a paddle and
anvil (Khummy, Gasya, Ustinovka-3), slab c.

These features are similar to those described for early ceramics from other
regions of eastern Asia and elsewhere in the world. For example, a ceramic paste of untempered natural clay is typical for the earliest pottery of Japan (Vandiver 1991). My inspection of Incipient Jomon ceramics from Kiriyama-Wada and Jin located in Honsu and dated to approximately 12,000-10,000 B.P. suggests some trends involving the technology of paste among these early ceramics. The ceramics from the earliest sites (or components of sites) have a paste prepared of rough, unworked natural clay. The ceramics from later components is characterized by clay in which more of the large particles have been removed, producing a more plastic clay paste that is still untempered. Plant fiber-tempering technology
occurred in the pottery of the Initial and Earliest Jomon periods (Nishida 1987). This technology appeared in the early ceramics of North and Central America (Griffin 1965; Hoopes 1994; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971; Reid 1984), Near East and Central Asia (Amiran 1965; Saiko 1982), and now for the materials from the Russian Far East.
There is some evidence for the use of mould forming methods in ceramic
assemblages from south and southeast China dated to 10,000-9000 B.P. (Wang Xiao Qing 1995). The use of moulds in the forming process was popular in several areas of Eurasia (Bobrinsky 1978). According to P. B. Vandiver, the earliest Japanese pottery was formed by a method similar to slab construction. Coiling was not employed in the initial stage of pottery production (Vandiver 1991). The combination of partial moulding and slab construction took place in some cases (Vandiver 1987). Similar examples of this technique were discovered in sites from south China dated between 9000 and 8000 B.P. A roundish stone or a basket may have been used as a mould to which pieces of clay were then applied (Wang Xiao Qing 1995). The coiling method for making pottery is widely represented among
archaeological assemblages throughout the world. Obvious evidence for this
method can be identified among later ceramics from J omon sites in Japan.
A relatively simple morphological pattern was a common characteristic of
early ceramics. Nonetheless, vessels with a rectangular shape also occurred in early pottery-making. The box-shaped vessels associated with Sakhalin Island’s Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya culture are similar to those from sites in northern Japan dated to 13,000-10,000 B.P. (Suda 1995).

The early ceramic assemblages of the Russian Far East share many technological and morphological properties with early ceramics discovered in other regions of the world. This resemblance may be explained, in part, by the comparable level of pottery-making development that restricted the technological and morphological choice. Variability within these early ceramic traditions developed gradually, as skills and expertise improved. At the same time, it may be noted that regional differences appeared in the very earliest stages of pottery-making. Ceramic assemblages from the Russian Far East show evidence of partial moulds and possibly
paddle and anvil techniques. In early Jomon assemblages, slab construction was employed, followed by coiling in later assemblages.
The Russian Far Eastern early ceramic assemblages that represent a common pottery-making level are placed into a fairly wide temporal interval between 13,000 and 6000 B.P. This large interval may reflect the few radiocarbon dates yet available for these assemblages and the lack of other absolute dating methods.
This article has shown that sites associated with early ceramics within each of the regions included here are consistently dated to a somewhat narrower interval of time. The lower Amur River basin is characterized by the oldest dates of the sites, ranging from 13,000 to 10,000 B.P. The sites from Primorie region occupy an intermediate position, between 8500 and 7500 B.P., and Sakhalin Island is characterized by the most recent sites, dated to 6500-6000 B.P. This chronological sequence possibly reflects the geographically uneven dynamics for the introduction of pottery-making in the territories of the Russian Far East.
The lower Amur River basin may be interpreted as a region of the earliest ceramics. Radiocarbon dates for the lowest components of the Gasya and Khummy sites are close to the dates of the Jomon sites in Japan containing the most unadvanced pottery. The ages of the sites in the Primorie region associated with early ceramics tend to match dates for sites associated with early pottery from areas to the south and southeast in China (Jiao 1995; Wang Xiao Qing 1995).
A common trait of both the Russian Far Eastern and Japanese sites is the occurrence of early ceramics together with a lithic industry combining elements from the Late Paleolithic and Neolithic. This may reflect certain technical and social contexts linked to the first appearance of pottery in this part of the world.
Because the first discoveries of early ceramics in East Asia occurred in the
Japanese archipelago, initial conceptions about the origins of pottery-making emphasized this territory (Ikawa-Smith 1976; Serizawa 1976). The discovery of the new sites containing early ceramics in the Russian Far East indicates that the area of ceramic origins needs to be broadened to include the Sea of Japan basin as a whole (Zhushchikhovskaya 1995b). Clearly, this perspective will lead to more comparative and new field research on the origins of pottery-making.”

On Sakhalin Island however, the dates are more recent: “The most archaic pottery-making tradition in this region is connected with the sites of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya archaeological culture (Golubev and Zhushchikhovskaya 1987). It is radiocarbon dated to approximately 6500-6000 B.P. The location of this archaeological culture is the southern portion of Sakhalin Island (Shubin et al. 1984).”



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