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The Invention of Pottery

A Brief Introduction to the Ceramic Art

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Pottery Fragment from Xianrendong

Pottery fragment from Xianrendong, layer 3C1B. Ten radiocarbon dates from this layer range between 17,488-19,577 cal BP

Image courtesy of Science/AAAS

Of all the kinds of artifacts which may be found at archaeological sites, ceramics--objects made from fired clay--are surely one of the most useful. Ceramic artifacts are extremely durable, and may last thousands of years virtually unchanged from the date of manufacture. And, ceramic artifacts, unlike stone tools, are completely person-made, shaped of clay and purposely fired. Clay figurines are known from the earliest human occupations; but clay vessels, pottery vessels used for storing, cooking and serving food, and carrying water were first manufactured in China at least 20,000 years ago.

Upper Paleolithic: Yuchanyan and Xianrendong Caves

Recently redated ceramic sherds from the Paleolithic/Neolithic cave site of Xianrendong in the Yangtse Basin of central China in Jiangxi province hold the earliest established dates, at 19,200-20,900 cal BP years ago. These pots were bag-shaped and coarse-pasted, made of local clay with inclusions of quartz and feldspar, with plain or simply decorated walls.

The second oldest pottery in the world is from Hunan Province, at the karst cave of Yuchanyan. In sediments dated between 15,430 and 18,300 calendar years before the present (cal BP) were found sherds from at least two pots. One was partially constructed, and it was a wide mouthed jar with a pointed bottom that looks very much like the Incipient Jomon pot illustrated in the photograph and about 5,000 years younger. The Yuchanyan sherds are thick (up to 2 cm) and coarsely pasted, and decorated with cord-marks on the interior and exterior walls.

Pre-Jomon: The Kamino Site (Japan)

The next earliest sherds are from the Kamino site in southwestern Japan. This site has a stone tool assemblage which appears to classify it as late Paleolithic, called Pre-ceramic in Japanese archaeology to separate it from the Lower Paleolithic cultures of Europe and the mainland.

At the Kamino site in addition to a handful of potsherds were found microblades, wedge-shaped microcores, spearheads and other artifacts similar to assemblages at Pre-ceramic sites in Japan dated between 14,000 and 16,000 years before the present (BP). This layer is stratigraphically below a securely dated Initial Jomon culture occupation of 12,000 BP. The ceramic sherds are not decorated, and are very small and fragmentary. Recent thermoluminescence dating of the sherds themselves returned a 13,000-12,000 BP date.

Jomon Culture Sites

Ceramic sherds are also found, also in small quantities, but with a bean-impression decoration, in a half-dozen sites of the Mikoshiba-Chojukado sites of southwestern Japan, also dated to the late Pre-ceramic period. These pots are bag shaped but somewhat pointed at the bottom, and sites with these sherds include the Odaiyamamoto and Ushirono sites, and Senpukuji Cave. Like those of the Kamino site, these sherds are also quite rare, suggesting that although the technology was known to the Late Pre-ceramic cultures, it just was not terribly useful to their nomadic lifestyle.

In contrast, ceramics were very useful indeed to the Jomon peoples. In Japanese, the word "Jomon" means "cord-mark," as in cord-marked decoration on pottery. The Jomon tradition is the name given to hunter-gatherer cultures in Japan from about 13,000 to 2500 BP, when migrating populations from the mainland brought full-time wet rice agriculture. For the entire ten millennia, the Jomon peoples used ceramic vessels for storage and cooking. Incipient Jomon ceramics are identified by patterns of lines applied onto a bag-shaped vessel. Later, as on the mainland, highly decorated vessels were also manufactured by the Jomon peoples.

By 10,000 BP, the use of ceramics is found throughout mainland China, and by 5,000 BP ceramic vessels are found throughout the world, both independently invented in the Americas or spread by diffusion into the middle eastern Neolithic cultures.

Porcelain and High-Fired Ceramics

The first high-fired glazed ceramics were produced in China, during the Shang (1700-1027 BC) dynasty period. At sites such as Yinxu and Erligang, high-fired ceramics appear in the 13th-17th centuries BC. These pots were made from a local clay, washed with wood ash and fired in kilns to temperatures of between 1200 and 1225 degrees Centigrade to produce a high fired lime-based glaze. Shang and Zhou dynasty potters continued to refine the technique, testing different clays and washes, eventually leading to the development of true porcelain. See Yin, Rehren and Zheng 2011.

Sources and a Bibliography

This article was originally written based on Keiji Imamura's Prehistoric Japan: New Perspectives on Insular East Asia, and with the assistance of Charles Keally's summary of Japanese archaeology.

A source bibliography on the invention of pottery is on the next page.

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