Jōmon Pottery: Ancient Earthenware of Japan

Spouted vessel from Hokkaidô, Japanese Spotted vessel showcasing the cord-patterned decoration from the Final Jomon period.

The Jōmon period, the earliest and most expansive period of Japanese history, dates from 10,500 B.C. to roughly 300 B.C. The name Jōmon roughly translates to “cord markings,” which characterizes the pottery that was produced during the Japanese Neolithic era. Artisans during this time created a unique type of pottery that distinguished it from the earlier Paleolithic Age, featuring impressed, stylized motifs and complex forms. All pots and vessels developed during the period were handmade, without the aid of a wheel. They were created, rather, by building up the vessel from the bottom with coil upon coil of soft clay, and later smoothing out parts of the surface.

Thousands of examples have been excavated from Jōmon sites, proving people of the period engaged the craft on an industrial scale, aside from a hunter-and-gatherer lifestyle which was typical among other contemporaneous civilizations. Though these mass discoveries have yielded large volumes of ancient earthenware, art historians and archaeologists have yet to answer fundamental questions regarding the people of this era, such as their ethnic classification and exact origin of their language. In this article, we take a closer look at the hallmarks of Jōmon pottery across all phases of the period, as well as their distinct forms and intended uses.

A Brief History of Jōmon Pottery

Jomon pottery bowl

Jomon pottery bowl. Sold for £2,250 via Bonhams (November 2014).

As prehistoric works of art, Jōmon pottery vessels are some of the oldest in the world. The name given to this craft was first applied by American scholar Edward S. Morse, who used the term in his book Shell Mounds of Omori (1879) to describe the distinctive decoration on the pottery shards he found. Since the pottery wheel wasn’t invented until the Yayoi period that followed, all vessels created during this time were manual and handworked. Their creation was based on necessity as they were vital tools for boiling water and cooking; a vital development for communities located along riverbanks.

Because the Jōmon period comprises an extended period of time and is so culturally diverse, historians and archaeologists often divide it into four key phases, which are outlined below.

Incipient Jōmon (10,500–8000 B.C.)

The earliest phases of the Jōmon period marks the transition from a Paleolithic lifestyle—a more primitive life where humans depended heavily on the environment and climate for survival—to that of the Neolithic, where the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry allowed them to settle in one area.

Findings from archaeological dig sites indicate that people of the time lived in simple surface dwellings and fed themselves by means of hunting and gathering. Examples of pottery typical of the era included deep, urn-like vessels with tapered, bullet-shaped vases with rudimentary cord markings. They were primarily used for outdoor cooking.

deep pottery bowls

Bowls from the Incipient Period. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Initial Jōmon (8000–5000 B.C.)

Around 10,000 B.C., a gradual climatic warming resulted in raised sea levels, which ultimately separated the islands of Shikoku and Kyūshū from the main island of Honshu. The rise in temperatures inadvertently expanded the food supply as well which most prominently came from the sea. People of the era used stone tools such as grinding rocks, knives, and axes to acquire food and other necessities. Pottery remained similar to that produced in the earlier Incipient period, with a deep center and tapered, bullet-shaped vase.

Early Jōmon (5000–2500 B.C.)

Pottery continued to develop, and vessels of eastern Japan became roughly cylindrical in shape, had flat bottoms, and the walls contained a mixture of vegetable fibre. Pottery was still rather plain in markings, aside from the cord patterns. There is also evidence of trade between the Japanese island and Korean peninsula during this time, which is indicated by a similarity in daily-use goods produced discovered from both regions.

Middle Jōmon (2500–1500 B.C.)

The Middle Jōmon phase marks a high point of Jōmon culture, both in increased population and production of crafts as well as in pottery techniques. Pottery created in the central mountain areas are considered to be the finest of the entire era. Motifs and ornamentation became markedly more extravagant as surfaces were covered with complex patterns of raised lines versus the plain markings seen in earlier periods. There was also an increased production of female figurines, suggesting a rise in ritual practices.

large jomon pottery jar

Jomon pottery jar. Sold for $1850 via Artemis Gallery (June 2018).

Late Jōmon (1500–1000 B.C.)

As the climate began to cool, a migration began from mountain regions to the coast, where a greater reliance on seafood led to innovations in fishing tools. Motifs and ornamentation reflected this change in landscape, with many pieces from this period depicting animals and snake-like shapes. Pottery became more intricate and elaborate as time went on, and potters became more skilled craftsmen.

Final Jōmon (1000–300 B.C.)

As food became less abundant with a dramatically cooling climate, the population greatly decreased. Regional differences inevitably became more emphasized, as increased contact with the Korean Peninsula eventually led to various Korean-type settlements in western Japan. Nearing the end of the period, two distinct groups of vessels had emerged: plain, rough wares, which had very little decoration, and fine ware with more varied motifs. The simple, more functional type of pottery production increased steadily in preparation for the Yayoi style, which was characterized by clean, functional shapes.

Jōmon Pottery Forms and Uses

Like many other early forms of pottery, women were the primary producers of Jōmon vessels. Most potters were semi-specialists, dedicating only a fraction of their time to manufacturing pots. They used soft clay, which was often mixed with other materials such as fibers and crushed shells to make coiling easier and the final product stronger. Since kilns had yet to be invented, vessels were fired over open flame at relatively low temperatures.

Types of Jōmon pottery include:

  • Fukabachi: Most common type of vessel; deep bowls and jars with wide mouths and contracted necks
  • Asabachi: Shallow clay pots
  • Hachi: Vessels with a more moderate depth
  • Sara: Exceedingly shallow examples of pottery; closer in shape to a plate or platter
  • Tsubo: Narrow-mouthed vessels that often featured long necks
  • Chuko: A spouted vessel

In addition to these broader groups, many vessels resembled lamps or incense burners which have holes as part of the decoration and figurines.

Japan remained isolated from the rest of Asian culture for a majority of the Jōmon period, so the culture, society, and technology remained more original and primitive without influences from other, advanced regions that began emerging around them. Regardless, relics from Japan’s Jōmon period are among the oldest in the world, and the sheer volume produced during the period have afforded Japanese art pieces to study. Jōmon pottery was gradually replaced by more sophisticated examples of the Yayoi period that followed, but the craftsmanship of these handmade vessels reflects what was held culturally significant for thousands of years.

Sources: Met Museum | Encyclopedia Britannica | Japanese Art from the Gerry Collection | Ancient History Encyclopedia