Kobayashi Tatsuo’s Jomon Reflections, Chapter 3 “The Appearance of pottery”

12 Feb

This is a summary of Chapter 3 of  Kobayashi Tatsuo’s “Jomon Reflections: Forager life and culture in the prehistoric Japanese archipelago” (published by Oxford Books, 2004). This is a preliminary work for me as I prepare to write my own essay on the Jomon period which I plan to publish on my website later this year


Pottery played a major role in defining the Jomon period, and radiocarbon data tells us it is the oldest pottery in the world. But we are yet to ascertain whether this pottery was invented on the archipelago (possibly in Kyushu) or on the Asian continent (note: at the time of the writing of the book, no pottery older than Japan’s had been found on the continent. Since then, pottery that appears to be older than Jomon’s has been found in China; very old pottery has also been found in Siberia. This has only emplified the debate of the origin of pottery in East Asia. Kobayashi, for his part, defended the theory that pottery could have had multiple origins)

The first record of the discovery of Jomon pottery dates all the way back to the Edo period, during the early 17th century, when pottery was recovered from the Kamegaoka site. But it is only 250 years later that the first scientific excavation, led by the American S. Morse, took place at the Omori shell midden (in Tokyo). He was the first to use recognize the pattern on the pottery sherds as being a “cord-like pattern”, which would later give its name to the period, Jomon meaning “cord pattern”, although it is worth noting that not all Jomon pottery is cord-marked, and there are cord-mark patterns also present during the subsequent Yayoi period

Much time was dedicated to the study of this cord-marked pottery by Japanese archaeologists. Yamanouchi Sugao systematic study led him to create a classification system and the discovery that such decoration was made by rolling and pressing a cord on the surface of the pottery. Each vessel and pot is classified following shared traits with other pottery and this, together with their individualistic features as well as the circumstances in which they were found allow archaeologists to understand the relation between the pot makers – believed to be mostly women – and their community: their pottery corresponds to a given model, stylistic and technical conventions belonging to their community, to which they add their personal interpretation. Similarities and differences between pottery from different locations also allow us to create a map and timeline for the stylistic evolution of pottery throughout the archipelago, as communities were never completely isolated and therefore under the influence of others’ pottery stylistic conventions to develop new styles in turn

The length of time during which a given style endures can vary greatly: enkomon, that is pottery decorated with punctured holes, was short-lived, while yoriitomon, an  style appearing during Initial Jomon, was one of the most enduring styles of pottery during the Jomon period

This pottery evolution has helped define the subdivision of the whole 10,000 years of the Jomon period into 6 periods (Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late and Final), each in turn further divided into ten phases. Many styles lasted for just one such phase, while some lastest for several. On average, one can consider that a style would last the length of one such phase, that is about 160 years – namely 6-8 generations. Comparatively, styles lasted on average 40 years during the subsequent Yayoi period and 20 years during the Kofun period

During the Incipient Jomon, potters derived great inspiration from everyday items to shape their vessels. For instance, they would very early on make flat-based square vessels, even if they are more difficult than bullet-shaped deep pots and more time-intensive, probably in an attempt to replicate the practical baskets or wodden trays that were already part of their lifestyle. A further clue into this are some of the patterns decorating these pots that can, for instance, be reminiscent of a woven basket

The Initial Jomon sees a decline in the number of flat-based square pots in favor of round-based ones, which can be interpretated as a distanciation from these attempts to create something ressembling known objects and consider what is most efficient in terms of pottery-making proper. It is also at this time that the cord-mark came to dominate decoration. It is a less impressive decorative style than the ones seen during Incipient Jomon, but again, it signals a detachment from the replicating of patterns from others objects and a step towards exploring pottery decoration as an independant art form

At that time, pots were mostly meant to serve one purpose, and that’s the cooking of food. But from the beginning, Early Jomon pottery, starting from Kanto but quickly developing elsewhere, offers a much greater diversity with ranges of vessels meant to serve food as well as store it. Decoration too saw an important development in that the surface was divided into zones where only some were decorated, or where decorated with much more striking motives than the rest

Pottery was further diversified during the Middle Jomon: it began to be made for purposes other than relating to food. Pottery lamps were made, while some others, with shapes that may appear strange or unpractical, might have been used in rituals or other ceremonies; at any rate, pots were sometimes used as burial urns or put to other uses around the households. It can be said that at this stage, the potential of Jomon pottery was fully realized, having evolved beyond its initial use as container for food. This is also true of decoration as, with the Middle Jomon, it takes on occasion a narrative quality unknown until then. Some of these narrative patterns also become standardized, meaning they problably were assigned a meaning that was widely recognized by a large number of people. These standardized patterns lost their purely decorative value to be represented in what appears to be an abbraviated form in favor of their meaning, and they started to be often used in combination in a given zone of the pottery, or a same pattern would be repeated on the whole surface, but each occurence would slightly differ from the other
It was already stated previously how the development of pottery was not only a technology revolution but also a major cultural and economical factor. Indeed, it offered new possibilities in terms of cooking and storage, increasing the number of foodstuff that could be consumed by the Jomon people, in particular because a great number of their staple foods, such as acorns and shell fish, need to go through a specific process before they can be eaten. Shellfish are of particular significance for archaeologists because of the many shell mounds that could be analyzed and offered extremely valuable information. One of the most famous is the shell midden of Natsushima (Kanagawa prefecture). It was the place of the first radiocarbon date in Japanese archaeology, placing cord-marked pottery at around 9,000 years before present


Kobayashi Tatsuo’s Jomon Reflections, Chapter 2 “The beginning of the Jomon revolution”

11 Feb

This is a summary of Chapter 2 of  Kobayashi Tatsuo’s “Jomon Reflections: Forager life and culture in the prehistoric Japanese archipelago” (published by Oxford Books, 2004). This is a preliminary work for me as I prepare to write my own essay on the Jomon period which I plan to publish on my website later this year


The Japanese archipelago was inhabitated since at least 30,000 years ago. This populations used technology typical of the Upper Palaeolithic and  made standardised flake stone tools including spearheads, blades and scrapers, but also partially polished axes which, in Europe, appeared only with the Neolithic. At that time, with the level of water being lower due to the glaciation, Japan must have had fairly close and diverse ties with the continent, something that would have played an important role in the development of the early Japanese culture: such ties would explain the speed at which stone tools shapes flourished only to disappear shortly afterwards. Microliths and composite stone tools appeared around 16,000 years ago, corresponding with the last glaciation coming to an end: these new tools offered greater flexibility which fit better with the major environmental upheaval that must have taken place at the time for the population of Eastern Asia. These tools would play an important role in the cultural and technological development on the archipelago that would lead to the Jomon period

Fukui Cave (Nagasaki prefecture) was a major discovery, with its three layers of remains, the bottom one with only microlith tools, the second including linear relief pottery and the top one with pottery decorated with a fingernail-impressed motif, showing the direct succession from Upper Palaeolithic to Jomon period. Subsequent discoveries allowed to refine that picture, with notably some undecorated pottery found together with microliths at Kamino (Kanagawa prefecture), and by the 1980s, a timeline of early pottery styles started to emerge

In particular, a sequence at Jin (Niigata prefecture) shows the following pattern: undecorated pottery (mumon) ->linear relief decoration (ryusenmon) ->pierced decoration (enkomon)

This technological evolution is of significance not only because it was new, but because it was the first technology that  was based on a principle of addition, whereas Palaeolithic technology were based on a principle of substraction (substracting flakes of stone to shape the desired tool, for instance) and which allowed those who used  it to correct mistakes along the way, again unlike stone tools technology

For a long time, it was believed that the Jomon culture had developed in Eastern Japan, but several large sites have also been discovered in Western Japan recently. One of those is the Kakoinohara site (Kagoshima prefecture). The layers of material coming from volcanic activity allows to date the site from before 11,000 years ago. It presents remarkable remains and artefacts, both in terms of number (the quantity of pottery found there is the largest at any site of that time on the archipelago) and in terms of quality. Also worth a mention are the carefully planned use of space and three hearths delimited by stones forming the shape of a boat and which orientation seems to have been deliberate and thus of significance for the people of the time. All these elements also point to the fact that the population there must have led a fairly sedentary life, something that appears to have been true for other locations in the region, making southern Kyushu one of the important centers of early Jomon development



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