Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Flame and Water Pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan

A temporary exhibition at the British Museum [1]

OK, so I promised a little break from Woolley’s adventures at Ur and here it is: A look at the Museum’s temporary exhibition of Japanese flame pots. Now, this is only my sixth post, and I’m still getting the hang of this blogging thing. So, I hope you’ll forgive me for writing about an exhibition that closed over the weekend. Going forward, I plan to talk about exhibits very early in their lives so you can go see them in person should you be inspired to do so (and I am going to be ALL OVER The Ice Age starting February 7--I can’t even tell you how excited I am). But, this little exhibit is really nifty and offers a brief break from Ur, so I thought it was very much worth discussing despite it now having passed.

Flame and Water Pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan [2] was a lovely little exhibition situated in Room 3, which is to your immediate right when you go through the Museum’s main entrance. It’s a small gallery that is used for temporary exhibits that are often of a timely nature. For example, during the Olympics it housed a discussion of the discobolus along with a modern interpretation. For the past few months, the room has held two spectacular Japanese Jōmon flame pots, circa 3,000 BC.

These flame pots are from the Iwanohara site in the prefecture of Niigata, and they are on loan from the Nagaoka Municipal Science Museum in Nagaoka City.

Map showing Niigata prefecture, courtesy of Wikipedia

The elaborate flame pots are shown alongside an earlier, more modest Jōmon pot from the Museum's permanent collection. The attractively spartan exhibit is made even more appealing by the tranquil Jōmon-inspired flute music by artist Yamagami Susumu that is piped into the room. [3]

The oldest known Japanese culture, the Jōmon lived a loooooong time ago--from about 14,000 (!) to 500 BC, and they are famous for being the world’s first potters. It was previously believed that the birth of pottery coincided with the birth of agriculture, which occurred around 12,000 years ago. It only made sense, really; hunters and gatherers had to be very mobile, and pottery is hard to transport. Surely you would only invest in making pottery if you were going to stay in one spot for a while--something that didn’t really happen until people started domesticating animals and cultivating crops.

But the prehistoric peoples of Japan started making pots around 16,500 years ago [4], roughly 4,500 years before the birth of agriculture in the Near East and about 14,000 years before agriculture started in Japan. [5] So why were the Jōmon making pots before agriculture? And, for that matter, why did agriculture arrive there so late, 9,500 years after it developed elsewhere?

Well, it seems the Jōmon lived in a veritable paradise. In his book A History of the World in 100 Objects, British Museum director Neil MacGregor explains that the Jōmon people lived in such lush surroundings that they were able to maintain a fine existence for thousands of years simply by eating the food found all around them. [6] While they mainly ate fish, they also enjoyed nuts and seeds and had access to a whopping 65 mammalian species. [7] Thanks to these bountiful surroundings, the Jōmon were able to maintain semi-permanent dwellings, living in one spot for several years before having to move to a new location. And when they did relocate to another lush locale along the Japanese coast, the banquet started all over again.

So it’s easy to see why the Jōmon had no need for agriculture. But they did have a need for pots. Pots not only offered a safe way to store food but greatly expanded the Jōmon diet; cooking can transform shellfish from a gamble into a safe meal, and many of the region’s indigenous nuts are only edible once boiled. In these ways, pots allowed the Jōmon to make even greater use of the riches that surrounded them.

The oldest pot in the exhibit--the one that is part of the Museum’s permanent collection and was the subject of Chapter 10 of A History of the World in 100 Objects--is about 7,000 years old and was made “in a tradition that even then was almost 10,000 years old.” [8] That means the earliest Jōmon pots were made about 12,000 years before the objects Woolley unearthed in the royal cemetery of Ur; Queen Puabi’s grave goods look shiny new by comparison. (One of my favorite things about archaeology is the feeling of awe I experience trying to comprehend the development of humanity over such a massive, non-human-scale period of time. Trying to grasp the ancientness of Jōmon culture definitely brings on the goosebumps.)

This lucky little pot enjoyed a “second life” after the Jōmon period when it was transformed into a water vessel for tea service, probably during the 19th Century. To make it more suitable for its new job, its interior was coated with gold leaf and a little lid was added.

This pot’s construction will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken even the most basic weekend pottery class: clay was rolled into a long, skinny rope, coiled into the shape of a pot, and then the coils were rubbed into one another to make the pot watertight and to create a smooth surface. Before firing, the pot was decorated by pressing a cord-wrapped stick against its wet surface, giving it a woven look a bit like a basket.

Many different patterns and textures can be achieved depending on the type of cord used, how it is wrapped along the stick, and the way it is applied to the pot.

This little aid shows some of the patterns that can be achieved 
using the Jōmon cord decorating technique.  The plaque appears in the Flame & Water Pots 
exhibit courtesy of the Jōmon pottery making circle of the Friends of the Niigata Prefecture Museum of History. I love a museum display that encourages you to touch!

The Jōmon are famous for this type of decoration and are, in fact, named for it: “Jōmon” literally means “cord-marked.”

Fast forward about 2,000 years to the real stars of the exhibit, and the Jōmon potters’ art has advanced considerably. They are still making their pots from coiled clay, but the decoration has become far more sophisticated.

These two Jōmon “fire-style” pots, a crown pot (left) and a fire pot (right), date to around 3,000 BC. They are remarkable works of art and, believe it or not, were used in exactly the same way as the more modest pot above: for everyday cooking.

Wait, what? Really?? Surely these were used for ceremonial purposes! Why would anyone make such elaborate pots for cooking up stews? I mean, I always thought Le Creuset was a little over the top . . .

While the Museum’s exhibit does say the pots were sometimes used for burials and “probably for rituals,” they were predominantly used as cooking pots, and we know this because of . . . SCIENCE!  Carbon analysis of blackened residue inside the pots reveals that they were used to cook fish as well as “Jōmon ‘cookies’ made of nuts, acorns and animal fat.”  (Mmmm . . . Yummers!)   It is believed that the pots’ trumpet design, with the narrow body fluting out to a wide rim, was designed to help prevent boiling over. [9] (Why aren’t pots trumpet shaped today? It sounds kind of brilliant.)

So they really were cooking pots. But why were they so elaborate? Anthropologists believe that Jōmon culture centered on the hearth and cooking was a celebrated part of life. These cooking vessels had an important place at the center of society and presented the Jōmon with an opportunity to “express their social identity.” [10] And just because something is used every day doesn’t mean it can’t be sacred; the exhibit suggests the pots’ “elaborate decoration may have had a ritual function--drawing attention to the remarkable transformation of raw ingredients to edible food . . .”

To this end, the fanciful designs on the pots are actually heavy with symbolism, featuring patterns that appear again and again throughout Jōmon culture. Unfortunately, we can’t know exactly what these symbols meant to the Jōmon people, but the Museum invites us to consider some of the best guesses:

This shape is believed to be a rooster’s tail (left) and comb (right)

This may be either a flame or a salmon jumping. (The salmon is a little harder for me to see . . .)

“Sawtooth pattern to ward off evil spirits”

Dragonfly eyes!

A magatama symbol--a common motif in prehistoric Japan--which the display says may be interpreted as either an animal claw or a fetus. Huh.

“S-shaped motif”. Simple enough.

“Architectural crown shape”.

And finally a “vortex pattern”.

The exhibition concludes with a look at how Jōmon culture inspires today’s Japanese. Until rather recently, the Jōmon were seen as a primitive people completely supplanted by the rice cultivators who arrived on the archipelago around 300 BC. But in the aftermath of WWII, as the nation began to reconsider what it means to be Japanese, the Jōmon were “rediscovered” and came to be “viewed as possessing a sophisticated culture and artistic tradition, forming an important part of Japan’s cultural patrimony.” [11]  Japanese environmentalists celebrate the Jōmon as exemplifying a simpler, more sustainable way of living, and their legacy has served as inspiration to artists ranging from potters to musicians. The flame pot style has been designated a National Treasure. [12] Flame pots serve as ambassadors through loans such as this one to the British Museum, and they are important cultural icons, even gracing manhole covers in Nagaoka City!

This photo of a Nagaoka manhole cover is part of the Flame and Water Pots exhibition.

So, the tiny little Flame & Water Pots exhibition was deceptively huge--I can’t believe how much there was to absorb in that one tiny room! But don’t be too sad if you missed it: As I said earlier, the older cord-decorated pot is part of the Museum’s permanent collection. It used to live in the Museum's posh Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries located in rooms 92-94, and I assume it’s headed back there now.

The Mitsubishi Gallery is among the fanciest in the Museum.

The Mitsubishi Galleries also hold another wonderful flame pot that is on long-term loan from the Tsunan Town Board of Education in Niigata prefecture. Of course, it is displayed with far less fanfare than was enjoyed in the Flame & Water Pots exhibition, but it is wonderful to look at all the same.

Flame pot in the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries at the British Museum

I hope you enjoyed the little detour from Ur and that you’ll be ready to head back with my next post. And, oh my goodness, we now have less than three weeks until the coming of The Ice Age! I cannot freakin’ wait.

[1] Maybe I missed something, but I’m not clear on why the exhibition was called Flame and Water Pots.  As I understand it, such pots are generally referred to as “flame-style” pots. As for the two on display, one is specifically a flame pot while the other is a crown pot. I didn’t notice any mention of water pots. So was the exhibition title just a stylistic choice? If you know, please share! 

[2] For the purposes of this post, all facts and quotes not otherwise attributed are from the Flame and Water Pots exhibition.

[3] Yamagami Susumu gave a concert at the Museum in December in conjunction with the exhibit. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend.

[4] MacGregor, Niel, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London, 2010) at 55.

[5] Id. at 58.

[6] Id. at 55-60.

[7] Rousmaniere, Nicole, “Into the Flames,” The British Museum Magazine, Winter 2012: 28-29. The number of mammalian species available to the Jōmon was included in the text accompanying the cord-decorated Jōmon pot when it was housed in Room 92 of the Museum. That material was removed when the pot was moved to the Flame & Water Pots exhibition. I found the number recorded in my notes from when I first viewed the pot in the early summer of 2012.  I do not know if this text will return to the exhibit when the pot does.

[8] Supra note 4 at 57.

[9] From the display of the Tsunan flame pot in Room 92 of the Museum.

[10] The British Museum Magazine, supra note 7 at 28.

[11] Id. at 29.

[12] Id. at 28.


AJ said...

Enjoying your posts and the opportunity to visit the British Museum vicariously!

B.J. Richards said...

Yay! Glad you're enjoying it!

RachelP said...

I can name a number of objects around my house that I feel would be more suitable with gold leaf. I like this idea!

B.J. Richards said...

Rachel, you will have the classiest joint in town!

M. Schindelbeck said...

I really loved reading this! Great work!
Also, I suggest the 'water pot' part might come from the Jomon pot used as a water pot later.