Jomon Pottery

Early Jomon Pot; ceramic; circa 5000 BCE; 15cm tall 17cm wide

Brief IdentificationEdit

In 1877, an American man named Edward Sylvester Morse discovered what is today known as “Jōmon” pottery at the Omori shell mound site. Morse described the pottery as “cord-marked” due to the patterns covering the pottery and his label was then later translated into “Jōmon .” Not only is the pottery known as Jōmon, but the hunter-gatherer, fishing culture from whom the pottery came are also referred to as the Jōmon [See Kenrick 1995, 21].

Radiocarbon dating technology has shown that Jōmon pottery may actually be the oldest in the world [See Kobayashi 2004, 19]. The primary use of pottery was for cooking and storage and in some cases was used for ritual purposes [See Kenrick 1995, 26]. The phases of Jōmon pottery can be broken down into Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late and Final [See Kenrick 1995, 24]. This particular pot is from the Early Jōmon Period, is dated around 5,000 BCE and measures 15 centimeters tall and 17 centimeters wide [See British Museum, Online].

Technical EvaluationEdit

Jōmon pottery was made using impure clay mixed with sand for tempering and was created without using a potter’s wheel, since this kind of technology had yet to be invented [See Underhill 1990, 11]. Instead, Jōmon pottery was made using a coiling technique . Coiling involves rolling out clay into a thick strand and wrapping it into a circle to form the pot, slowly molding and kneading the clay together. This kind of technique builds the pot from top to bottom [See Jenyns 28, 1971]. The finished product is then fired using a bonfire-like technique. A hole in the ground is dug and once the pot is placed in the hole, fuel such as brush and sticks are placed on and around the hole and then set aflame. This only allows for low firing temperatures of 400 to 500 degrees [See Jenyns 1971, 28].

This low temperature and uneven baking process made the pots porous and liquid could only remain in the pots for a set amount of time. In the Early Jōmon period, the firing temperatures rose from 400 to 500 degrees to 700 degrees, but despite this change the pots during the Early Jōmon were made thicker and much larger, leaving the pots more unevenly baked, more porous and more susceptible to cracking and quick deterioration [See Kenrick 1995, 32]. Also during the Early Jōmon, wavy rims and spouts appeared in addition to more defined lips with linear markings, which can be seen in the photograph of this particular pot [See Pearson 1990, 16].

Jōmon pottery, like its name suggests, is characterized by the cord-marking patterns on the pots’ surfaces. This pattern was achieved by twisting two cords to form one and then wrapping the cord onto a stick, which was then rolled around the pot [See Kenrick 1995, 32]. Although this decorative pattern was the most common it was certainly not the only one. Other patterns include applied and linear relief and lines, stab and drag grooving, shell marking and scraping and finger nail or bamboo patterns [See Kenrick 1995, 47]. Experts have also found that some of the pots from later Jōmon phases have been lacquered on the inside with a mixture made from Japanese sumac tree and ferrous oxide compound in order to reduce the porousness of the pots, which exhibits the Jōmon peoples’ ability for innovation and their extensive plant knowledge [See Kenrick 1995, 50]. This particular pot was lacquered during the 19th century after it was excavated, so it is impossible to tell if it too had the original sumac, ferrous oxide lacquer [See British Museum, Online].

Local Historical ContextEdit

The Jōmon people of what are today the Japanese islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu experienced moderate climates, the protection of the islands from invasions and an abundant food and water supply [See Kleiner 2009, 207]. Jōmon pottery was made whenever it was needed, but cherished because it opened up a new world for the Jōmon culture that included freedom of expression [See Egami 1973, 13]. Clay could be molded, re-molded and decorated in any way possible [See Kobayashi 2004, 12]. Eighty percent of the pottery found is from the rich deciduous broad leaf forest zone of the Japanese islands, an area quite fitting for the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer culture [See Pearson 1990, 16]. These ceramics would have been used in the storage of abundant resources from this region and also in the boiling of vegetables and shellfish, a process that made for better flavor and easier digestion [See Kobayashi 2004, 22]. There is also evidence that the pottery was used in burial rituals. Cleaned bones, babies and small children have been found buried inside pots, however, due to the acidity of Japanese soils, experts have been unable to find many full skeletal remains in or around the pottery despite their location in what are believed to be burial centers of Jōmon villages [See Kenrick 1995, 30].

Small villages that moved from place to place whenever resources became exhausted marked the beginning of the Jōmon period, but by the Early Jōmon phase these villages became much more sedentary as the people took advantage of the rising sea levels that provided an abundant and reliable food source of fish and shellfish [See Pearson 1990, 15]. These coastal settlements consisted of mostly pit-dwellings , which are formed by picking a location, ridding the area of plants by setting it aflame and then digging into the earth to create a foundation for walls and a roof [See Kobayashi 2004, 100]. These pit-dwellings were extremely labor intensive and thus represented something significant for the Jōmon people [See Kobayashi 2004, 101]. These dwellings revolved around small family communities that provided a sense of unity, which can be seen reflected in the pottery designs that seem to model techniques passed down by households as a tradition, not as a specialty [See Kobayashi 2004, 28].

World Historical Significance Edit

The Jōmon pots of Japan are some of the oldest in the world and most likely the first the world has ever seen [See Kobayashi 2004, 19]. Although there is not a surplus of information surrounding the Jōmon, it is clear from the ceramic ware that there was innovation and the beginnings of artistic thought. Japan was slower to develop in comparison to other world cultures but even in their sloth and isolation, the Jōmon people managed to create pottery and live in established communities before living in an agrarian society [See Kobayashi 2004, 3]. There is speculation regarding possible contact between China and Japan and perhaps the Jōmon exploring Korea, but there is no solid evidence to support these theories [See Kenrick 1995, 36]. As a result of isolation, a very distinct culture emerged with the skill to specialize in pottery, an advanced technology for food storage and cooking.


Kenrick, Douglas M. Jomon of Japan. London: Kegan Paul International Limited, 1995.

Kobayashi, Tastuo. Jomon Reflections. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2004.

Jenyns, Soame. Japanese Pottery. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1971.

Kleiner, Fred S. Gardener's Art Through the Ages, 13th Edition. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.

Anne P. Underhill and Richard Pearson, et al. The Rise of a Great Tradition. New York: Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan and Japan Society, 1990.

Egami, Namio. The Beginnings of Japanese Art. New York: John Weatherhill, Inc., 1973.

British Museum. “Jōmon Pot”. Accessed April 14, 2011.