The History of Jōmon Pottery and its Uses

Where did Jōmon pottery originate? And why is it so significant?

An example of a piece of ancient Jōmon pottery
An example of a piece of ancient Jōmon pottery. Getty

 Where did Jōmon pottery originate?

Jōmon pottery originates from Japan and actually relates to the Jōmon period. It’s been widely written about that the exact dates for the Jōmon period have been difficult to pinpoint. With the very earliest date being slated as 10, 500 BC, although most sources agree it may have ended around 300 BC when the Jōmon gave way to the Yayoi period (roughly 300 BC to 250 CE). One of the defining factors of the Yayoi period is was sometimes known as an Iron Age period in Japan, where metal work was an important factor. All work before this was very manual and hand worked. It’s been documented that many of the Jōmon people lived along the riverbanks in small communities and were predominately farmers. Such a wide range of food was available for them in these abundant areas, the creation of the pottery for boiling and cooking was a natural progression. 

What was Jōmon used for?

The pottery wheel was not invented until the Yayoi period (which preceded the Jomon period), so all of Jōmon pottery is characterised by being hand built. It dates back as being some of the earliest pottery found on earth and is well known for its makers using the coiling technique. The works (particularly the early pieces) were usually bullet shaped pots. As in much early pottery women made the pieces and Jōmon work often had very prominent cord markings on its exterior, which is where Jōmon's name comes from. The type of clay used was often very soft and ‘mixed with other materials such as fibers and crushed shells’, this would make coiling a lot easier and made the final ware a lot stronger. Once the coil pot had been made they were fired at the relatively low temperature of around 900 degrees Celsius. In the cases that Jomon pottery was not created for cooking or storage, pieces was sometimes used in burial rituals or for ceremonies.

What are the different time periods in Jōmon pottery?

As the Jōmon period spanned such a lengthy time scale, it was broken into several different movements. The beginning of the period was the Incipient Jōmon period and this was where one of the first periods pottery with rounded bottoms (bullet shaped) used for outdoor cooking was created. They were usually placed the bullet shaped pots with their food or boiling water in, on stones or in sand in the bonfire to keep them stable. The Early Jōmon period saw pottery being progressed further with flat bottomed pots being created for indoor use. Up until this period many of the vessels were very plain in their markings, other than the cord patterns they were known for and it wasn’t until the middle and late Jōmon period that the decoration really got taken up a level. Some of the pieces from this time period have been found with animal motifs and shapes like snakes were very popular, as were faces. Figurines were made throughout the whole Jōmon period. The pottery became more and more intricate and elaborate as the period wore on, with potters gaining in confidence and experimentation.

In the earlier days the patterns were said to have been created using things like beans or scratching the design in with items like bamboo sticks or the potter’s fingernails.

What kind of glazes were used in Jōmon?

As this was such an early period and use of pottery, glazing pottery was not yet a common practise and most pieces were unglazed, with the exception of burnishing, which become popular in the late Jōmon period. The Heritage of Japan have written about some interesting processes they know happened in the early Jōmon period, which was the use of lacquer as a glaze. This lacquer was made from the sap of a rhus verniciflora tree and it was coloured red with oxidized iron (there are some beautiful examples of this at the Tokyo National Museum). The color red was very auspicous throughout the Jōmon period.