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Jomon Pottery: Rope Pottery and Ceramics of Prehistoric Japan

Updated on January 17, 2015
Two jars from the Jōmon period.
Two jars from the Jōmon period. | Source

Welcome!

Some of the oldest pottery in the world is that from Jōmon-period Japan (about 14,000-300 BCE). The designs on most Jomon (meaning 縄文, or "cord marks") pottery are simple, but elaborate. Many are extremely complex, even by today's standards. In fact, Jomon-style pottery is still being sculpted today by many artists in Japan and around the world!

What is the history behind Jomon pottery? What were its uses in the societies of Jomon-period Japan? How does it continue to inspire today? That and more will be explored in this hub!

A village of reconstructed Jomon-period (around 3,000 BCE) houses at the Hira-ide Historic Site Park in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
A village of reconstructed Jomon-period (around 3,000 BCE) houses at the Hira-ide Historic Site Park in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. | Source

The Beginnings of Japanese Civilization

The Jōmon period were the early years of Japanese civilization ranging from about 14,000 to 300 BCE. The population of Jomon-period Japan was centered in central Honshu, but Jomon sites have been found all across Japan.

The people of the early Jomon period are said to be hunter-gathers who lived off various nuts, grains, wildlife, and fruit growing across Japan, as well as the shellfish off Japan's coastal areas. The shell mounds containing the shells from these fish as well as other discarded items have been valuable sources of information for archaeologists for many years.

The early people of Jomon lived in caves, but gradually moved to pit houses over time. They mainly used bows and arrows and tools made from stone and flint for hunting, agriculture, fishing, and other purposes.

During the later years of the Jomon period, people from mainland Asia and the South Pacific started migrating to Japan and brought with them various rice-farming techniques, religious customs, pottery-manufacturing techniques (i.e. the potter's wheel), and metallurgy. This ended the Jomon period and gradually brought Japan into the Yayoi period (300 BC-300 AD).

The very existence of Jomon pottery suggests that the people of this time were not nomadic, foraging hunters (who could nor or did not use pottery) and had at least a good degree of a sedentary lifestyle.

An example of rope-marked Jomon pottery from 5000-4000 BCE on display at the Tokyo National Museum (Picture used per Creative Commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license).
An example of rope-marked Jomon pottery from 5000-4000 BCE on display at the Tokyo National Museum (Picture used per Creative Commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license). | Source

Primary Functions of Jomon Pottery

Jomon pottery was mainly used for practical purposes. That is, for food storage or for holding food while eating. Pots that had pointed bottoms were typically used for cooking, while more rounded pieces such as bowls and jars were used for eating or storing food such as fruits, vegetables, and even tea.

During the later years of the Jomon period, more complex pottery such as teapot-style vessels with spouts were made.

Other ceramic objects made by the Jomon people included items such as pendants (i.e. the comma-shaped Magatama pendants), jewelry, and dogū (土偶) clay figurines. These objects were primarily used for religious worship or had a spiritual meaning.

Making Jomon Pottery

Jomon pottery was hand-made by earthenware clay, which was wrapped with a cord or rope afterwards. The rope was then pressed into the clay to create the elaborate designs. The piece was then fired at a relatively low temperature of 500-700 degrees Celsius (932-1,292 degrees Fahrenheit) in a fire pit or ditch.

Jomon pottery was made with a clay that contained materials such as crushed seashells, mica, and natural fibers.

Learn How to Make Jomon-Style Pottery!

A middle Jomon-period jar. Note the rope imprints and elaborate flame-shaped rim.
A middle Jomon-period jar. Note the rope imprints and elaborate flame-shaped rim. | Source

Jomon Pottery Designs

The cord imprints on Jomon ceramic pieces are their most prevalent characteristic. However, there were some other patterns that can be found on Jomon-era pottery. Among these are patterns made by nail indentations, applique, and shell-impressing.

Throughout the Jomon period, there were many types of local pottery made at the different settlements. Many of these were traded between settlements as part of a vast trade network that existed between the regions.

During the middle Jomon period, three different types of pottery emerged as the art of ceramics advanced: the Katsusaka pottery of the mountainous people of central and western Japan, the Umataka pottery of the northern coast, and the Otamadai pottery of the area around modern-day Tokyo Bay.

Katsusaka pottery was distinctive from the other two in that animals such as frogs, lizards, and especially snakes were carved onto their pottery. It is thought that a snake cult existed among the Katsusaka people and these snake carvings were a form of worship.

Umataka pottery is noteworthy for the dazzling and intricate carvings around the rims of their pottery. Some of these carvings are shaped like flames.

Otamadai pottery was much more simple than Katsusaka and Umataka pottery. It was usually very ordinary, a reddish-brown in color, and sometimes had the same designs as pottery from the other two regions. This suggests a snake cult may have existed among the Otamadai people as well.

During the middle and late Jomon period, the pottery in general became more and more elaborate. Some, such as the orange Kasori E, were very unique. There were many types that emerged during the late and final Jomon period, including the black Goryo ware and Kasori B ware.

A dogu dating from 1000-400 BCE found in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan.
A dogu dating from 1000-400 BCE found in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. | Source

Dogū

Dogū (土偶) are earthenware figurines made during the Jomon period. These figurines are a mystery that fascinates many people today, and have been the subject of speculation among archaeologists and historians for many decades.

Dogu figurines often share the same physical features, such as "bug-eyes" or "goggle-eyes", short limbs, and large hips and posteriors. They were often depicted as being pregnant. Many others were depicted with large male and female anatomy. Many dogu also have elaborate swirl patterns that extend around their bodies, and markings on their bodies which are most likely tattoos.

Most of these figurines have been found in eastern Japan.

The vast majority of dogu that have been found are usually missing a limb. It is not exactly known why this is, but it widely thought that a limb may have been cut off the figurine during a ritual.

There have been many theories on the purposes of dogu. One that has been popular among ancient astronaut and UFO theorists for the past several decades is that they depict an alien race that visited Earth many millinea ago. Since similar figurines wearing what look like goggles and elaborate suits have been found among the Native peoples of North and South America, there are some who theorize that these alien visitors visited the other countries and continents of planet Earth during this time.

The most common and widely accepted theory is that dogu were ritual objects that were used as a one-time offering since many broken dogu have been found in Jomon-era trash piles. Because of the large anatomy on these figures and the depictions of pregnancy, it is widely thought they were used for fertility offerings in a fertility ritual (possibly to a fertility goddess), or possibly as a cure for an illness by "sending" the illness to the dogu and destroying it. Or it may have been simply used as a good luck offering. In recent years, some scientists have speculated that dogu may have been used as toys.

Dogu were often pressed with the Jomon rope-pressing technique and made from the same materials as the pottery from the period.

Jomon Urushi-Ware and the Color Red

Jomon people were the first people in Japan to discover the lacquering properties of the urushi tree. The liquid from this tree has both practical and aesthetic values. Not only does it give a pottery piece a beautiful red glaze, but also prevents the piece from cracking and leaking.

The oldest urushi-ware pieces are at least 9,000 years old and were discovered at an archaeological dig in Hokkaido in the summer of 2000. These pieces were a set of burial ornaments that were used for a prominent person. The set was remarkably intact and had kept its color well through the millinea!

It is thought the color red may have also had a spiritual meaning to the Jomon people. In addition to urushi-ware, there have been pottery pieces discovered that are tinted with cinnabar and ferric oxide, which give the piece a reddish hue. These pieces have been found at burial sites, which suggest red was a color of great spiritual importance.

Jomon Pottery, Dogu, and Modern Art

Jomon pottery and dogu have continued to influence Japanese art well into the present day. Japanese potters such as Okabe Mineo, Mingei potter Tatsuzō Shimaoka, and the late Japanese artist Taro Okamato have been influenced by ancient Jomon pottery.

Dogu have featured in various anime and manga such as the 2010 anime series Kodai Shoujo Dogu-chan (古代少女ドグちゃん/"The Ancient Dogoo Girl"), the manga series "Ankoku Shinwa", or "Myth of Darkness", and Yukinobu Hoshino's comic strip "Case Records of Professor Munakata". In Shinji Nishikawa's comic book series "Dogu Famir", a family of dogu try to fit in to modern-day Japanese society...and protect the world from an evil dogu who is remote-controlled by aliens. Also, in the comic book series "Understanding Japanese History", we are given an explanation from that famous robotic cat from the future Doraemon and his sidekick Norita about dogu.

In Conclusion

There is much we don't know about the world of Jomon-period Japan, and the background of objects such as dogu will probably always remain a mystery to some degree. Despite this, Jomon pottery has provided us much insight into what life was like in Japan at the very beginning of its civilization. We now know the great skill Jomon potters had and the advanced techniques they used in their ceramics that still speak to us in the modern age.

Thank you for your visit to this hub and hopefully you enjoyed your visit! If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to leave them in the Comment sections below.

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    • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR

      truefaith7 

      6 years ago from USA

      Thanks for the feedback and the follow! Glad you enjoyed the hub and found it informative and interesting!:-D

    • DDS profile image

      David Sproull 

      6 years ago from Toronto

      Thank you for a very interesting hub. I love this kind of stuff, so voted up and will follow!

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