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Deep bowl and Dogū, Jōmon period

Deep Bowl, c. 3000–2000 B.C.E, Middle Jōmon Period, low-fired clay, excavated from Miyanomae, Ina-Ishi, Nagano, Japan; and a Dogū, c. 1000–400 B.C.E., Late Jōmon Period, low-fired clay, excavated from Rokugoishinadate, Misato-cho, Akita, Japan (Tokyo National Museum) A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in the Tokyo National Museum. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Steven] Japan has a long, rich history of making ceramics and some of the most interesting are early in that history. - [Beth] And they date from a period known as the Jomon and we're in the Tokyo National Museum looking at a fabulous example from this period of a deep bowl that dates from the third millennium, BCE. So we're looking at something that's between four and 5,000 years old. - [Steven] It's about two and a half feet tall and it's heavily decorated. Jomon means cord decorated or cord patterned. This particular pot was probably made using a variety of techniques, rolling out flat sheets of clay, taking those slabs and building up the pot using coils and pinching with the fingers. And then the decoration was applied to the body of the pot using small coils. - [Beth] We can see where the potter took a tool and made striations and cuts to decorate broad areas of the pot. - [Steven] This is a low-fired pot. It would've been allowed to dry and then it would've been placed near a fire so that it would've been warmed and all of the interior moisture would've been wicked out of it. At that point, it may have been placed in an open fire that probably reached no more than about 700 degrees Fahrenheit and that would've hardened the pot so that the pot could be used. - [Beth] What I love about these Jomon Period pots is that they seem so far from this basic functional purpose of a pot. You can imagine when people first fired ceramics and made pots, how useful they would be to store things, to cook food, to make food more edible, to free food from bacteria. But then you have human beings making things like this where there's a lot of effort put into making these sometimes spiral shapes, sometimes these comma-like shapes, these Xes, these striations, sometimes really broad striations, sometimes very thin and delicate ones, and these tooth-like forms that stick out from the top. One wonders how does one move toward this intense heavy decoration? - [Steven] Well, it's a reminder that even in the Neolithic Period, people were interested in beauty. - [Beth] This is a time in Japanese history when people are still, for the most part, hunter gatherers. They're beginning to settle down into villages. They're beginning toward the end of the Jomon Period to cultivate plants, but this is not a period where we have any written records. - [Steven] This lack of information becomes even more tantalizing when we look at the human figurines that the Jomon produced. - [Beth] They're a combination of flatness and bulbousness, and those large eyes. - [Steven] They look like coffee beans to me. They have those horizontal lines, so thin and flat, but they're also quite round and they're enormous in relationship to the size of the face. The nose, the mouth are tiny. The shoulders are broad, the legs are bulbous, but the figure as a whole is relatively two-dimensional. - [Beth] The feet are small. The hands are similarly stumps. The breasts are widely placed, almost on the shoulders instead of on the torso of the figure. And then we have rounded circular decorations on the figure. - [Steven] This particular figure seems to be wearing a necklace and then there's this wild snake-like form that seems to coil down from her torso down to her genitals. - [Beth] We also see decoration around her thighs, on her hips, at her waist and her shoulders. Places where these have been found haven't yielded any information about the purpose of these objects. - [Steven] When we look at objects that are this old, this is the realm of archeology, and we can only hope that new archeological finds will yield new information and will give us a sense of what the pots and what the figures meant. (jazzy music)