Jomon pottery conch shell

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of Jomon pottery have been found at archaeological excavation and building construction sites. Such massive amounts of pottery implies that the Jomon people engaged in the craft on an almost industrial scale and were more than simple hunters and gatherers.

Charles T. Keally wrote: “It is commonly thought that the oldest pottery in Japan is the linear-relief potsherds from the Fukui Cave site in northwestern Kyushu, dated about 10,000-10,500 B.C. In fact there are several sites, scattered all over the country except in Okinawa in the far south, that have yielded potsherds from strata dated around 11,000 B.C. -- in Hokkaido in the far north (Higashi Rokugo 2); in Aomori at the northern end of the main island of Honshu (Odai Yamamoto I); in Ibaragi (Ushirono), Tokyo (Maeda Kochi) and Kanagawa (Kamino) in east-central Honshu; and in Nagasaki (Sempukuji) in northwestern Kyushu in western Japan. The ages of these sites rival anything on the continent. But more significant is the fact that pottery becomes common in Japanese sites from around 7500-8000 B.C., except in Hokkaido and Okinawa, and that is not true of continental sites. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

The manufacture of pottery typically implies some form of sedentary life because pottery is heavy, bulky, and fragile and thus generally unusable for hunter-gatherers. However, this does not seem to have been the case with the first Jomon people, who perhaps numbered 20,000 over the whole archipelago. It seems that food sources were so abundant in the natural environment of the Japanese islands that it could support fairly large, semi-sedentary populations. The Jomon people used chipped stone tools, ground stone tools, traps, and bows, and were evidently skillful coastal and deep-water fishermen. [Source: Wikipedia]

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “Pottery was one of the most useful crafts for the Jomon, and this can be seen from the large numbers of pots and other clay vessels that they produced. Jomon women are thought to have produced pottery for household daily uses such as cooking and storage, but also for decoration and for special ceremonies. If you’ve ever tried to move a heavy terracotta flowerpot, you’ll know that it’s no fun lugging one of these around…especially on foot. The fact that the Jomon people made so many pots tells us one important thing, these hunter-gathering people couldn’t have been wandering around all the time (i.e., they couldn’t have been nomadic) and must have settled down somewhere at least for part of the year (they were sedentary or semi-sedentary)...From excavated finds, scholars believe that the earliest pottery in Japan was produced by riverside hunter fishers who had microlithic blade technology. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ;Essay on Rice and History ; Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu ; Yoshinogari Historical Park ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

World’s First Pottery from Japan?

chord markings found on Jomon pottery
Jomon pottery from Japan has been dated to around 16,000 years ago (14,000 B.C.) and is regarded as the oldest in the world although of similar ages have been found in southern China, the Russian Far East, and Korea. Pottery is made by cooking soft clay at high temperatures until it hardens into an entirely new substance — ceramics. Some Jomon pottery was decorated with markings made by pressing various items including lengths of cord into the wet clay before firing. Pottery from Japan preceded ceramics from Mesopotamia by over two thousand years. Ancient pottery with similar styling and dates have been found in China and the Russian Far East. China now claims it is the home of the world’s oldest pottery (See Below).

The earliest pieces of Jomon pottery were small rounded pots were plain or had bean, linear or fingernail applique decorations. Later cord-marked decorations appeared, from which the name “Jomon” (meaning “chord-marked”) is derived. Excavations have revealed pottery fragments from very small, rounded pots made by a hunter-gathering people living in the Kanto plain, where Tokyo is now located, that may be 16,000 years old. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

In 1998 small fragments were found at the Odai Yamamoto I site, which have been dated to the 14th millennium BC; subsequently, pottery of the same age was found at other sites such as Kamikuroiwa in Shikoku and Fukui Cave in northwestern Kyushu. Archaeologist Junko Habu claims that "The majority of Japanese scholars believed, and still believe, that pottery production was first invented in mainland Asia and subsequently introduced into the Japanese archipelago." However, at present it appears that pottery emerged at roughly the same time in Japan, the Amur River basin of far eastern Russia, and China. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Some early Jomon pottery is characterized by the cord-marking that gives the period its name and has now been found in large numbers of sites. The pottery of the period has been classified by archaeologists into some 70 styles, with many more local varieties of the styles. The antiquity of Jomon pottery was first identified after World War II, through radiocarbon dating methods. The earliest vessels were mostly smallish round-bottomed bowls 10–50 cm high that are assumed to have been used for boiling food and, perhaps, storing it beforehand. They belonged to hunter-gatherers and the size of the vessels may have been limited by a need for portability. As later bowls increase in size, this is taken to be a sign of an increasingly settled pattern of living. These types continued to develop, with increasingly elaborate patterns of decoration, undulating rims, and flat bottoms so that they could stand on a surface. +

20,000-Years-Old Pottery Found in a Chinese Cave?

early Jomon pot

In June 2012, AP reported: “Pottery fragments found in a south China cave have been confirmed to be 20,000 years old, making them the oldest known pottery in the world, archaeologists say. The findings, which will appear in the journal Science, add to recent efforts that have dated pottery piles in east Asia to more than 15,000 years ago, refuting conventional theories that the invention of pottery correlates to the period about 10,000 years ago when humans moved from being hunter-gathers to farmers. [Source: Didi Tang, Associated Press, June 28, 2012 ]

“The research by a team of Chinese and American scientists also pushes the emergence of pottery back to the last ice age, which might provide new explanations for the creation of pottery, said Gideon Shelach, chair of the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies at The Hebrew University in Israel. "The focus of research has to change," Shelach, who is not involved in the research project in China, said by telephone. In an accompanying Science article, Shelach wrote that such research efforts "are fundamental for a better understanding of socio-economic change (25,000 to 19,000 years ago) and the development that led to the emergency of sedentary agricultural societies." He said the disconnection between pottery and agriculture as shown in east Asia might shed light on specifics of human development in the region.

“Wu Xiaohong, professor of archaeology and museology at Peking University and the lead author of the Science article that details the radiocarbon dating efforts, told The Associated Press that her team was eager to build on the research. "We are very excited about the findings. The paper is the result of efforts done by generations of scholars," Wu said. "Now we can explore why there was pottery in that particular time, what were the uses of the vessels, and what role they played in the survival of human beings.”

“The ancient fragments were discovered in the Xianrendong cave in south China’s Jiangxi province, which was excavated in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, according to the journal article. Wu, a chemist by training, said some researchers had estimated that the pieces could be 20,000 years old, but that there were doubts. "We thought it would be impossible because the conventional theory was that pottery was invented after the transition to agriculture that allowed for human settlement." But by 2009, the team — which includes experts from Harvard and Boston universities — was able to calculate the age of the pottery fragments with such precision that the scientists were comfortable with their findings, Wu said. "The key was to ensure the samples we used to date were indeed from the same period of the pottery fragments," she said. That became possible when the team was able to determine the sediments in the cave were accumulated gradually without disruption that might have altered the time sequence, she said.

“Scientists took samples, such as bones and charcoal, from above and below the ancient fragments in the dating process, Wu said. "This way, we can determine with precision the age of the fragments, and our results can be recognized by peers," Wu said. Shelach said he found the process done by Wu’s team to be meticulous and that the cave had been well protected throughout the research.

The same team in 2009 published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which they determined the pottery fragments found in south China’s Hunan province to be 18,000 years old, Wu said. "The difference of 2,000 years might not be significant in itself, but we always like to trace everything to its earliest possible time," Wu said. "The age and location of pottery fragments help us set up a framework to understand the dissemination of the artifacts and the development of human civilization.”

Very Old Pottery from the Russian Far East

rope pottery from the Middle Jomon

Very old pottery has been found in Amur River basin of the Russian Far East that appears to be as old as that found in Japan. The oldest Russian Far East ceramics are accompanied by stone artifacts made in the blade technique characteristic of the late Paleolith era or Neolithic era. In an article entitled “On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East,” Irina Zhushchikhovskaya wrote: “Sites containing simple ceramics were discovered in the Amur River basin, the Primorie (Maritime) region, and on Sakhalin Island. These sites are widely dated from between 13,000 to 6000” before present (B.P.) “In the Russian Far East, the problem of pottery-making origins has been explored only recently.[Source:“On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East” by Irina Zhushchikhovskaya, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Fall 1997), pp. 159-174, University of Hawai'i Press ==]

“Early ceramics assemblages from various regions in the northern part of the Sea of Japan basin and the Russian Far East are characterized by certain technological and morphological features. Two types of ceramic pastes can be distinguished, the first employing natural clay without artificial temper (Ustinovka-3, Almazinka) and the second using clay with plant fiber artificial temper (Gasya, Khummy, Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya culture, Chernigovka-1). Not all of the pottery assemblages provide evidence of forming techniques.At least three can be identified: a moulding technique, perhaps in conjunction with the use of a paddle and anvil, slab construction and coiling. These features are similar to those described for early ceramics from otherregions of eastern Asia and elsewhere in the world. For example, a ceramic paste of untempered natural clay is typical for the earliest pottery of Japan (Vandiver 1991). ==

“The early ceramic assemblages of the Russian Far East share many technological and morphological properties with early ceramics discovered in other regions of the world. This resemblance may be explained, in part, by the comparable level of pottery-making development that restricted the technological and morphological choice. Variability within these early ceramic traditions developed gradually, as skills and expertise improved. At the same time, it may be noted that regional differences appeared in the very earliest stages of pottery-making. Ceramic assemblages from the Russian Far East show evidence of partial moulds and possibly paddle and anvil techniques. In early Jomon assemblages, slab construction was employed, followed by coiling in later assemblages. ==

“The Russian Far Eastern early ceramic assemblages that represent a common pottery-making level are placed into a fairly wide temporal interval between 13,000 and 6000 B.P. This large interval may reflect the few radiocarbon dates yet available for these assemblages and the lack of other absolute dating methods. This article has shown that sites associated with early ceramics within each of the regions included here are consistently dated to a somewhat narrower interval of time. The lower Amur River basin is characterized by the oldest dates of the sites, ranging from 13,000 to 10,000 B.P. The sites from Primorie region occupy an intermediate position, between 8500 and 7500 B.P., and Sakhalin Island is characterized by the most recent sites, dated to 6500-6000 B.P. This chronological sequence possibly reflects the geographically uneven dynamics for the introduction of pottery-making in the territories of the Russian Far East. ==

“The lower Amur River basin may be interpreted as a region of the earliest ceramics. Radiocarbon dates for the lowest components of the Gasya and Khummy sites are close to the dates of the Jomon sites in Japan containing the most unadvanced pottery. The ages of the sites in the Primorie region associated with early ceramics tend to match dates for sites associated with early pottery from areas to the south and southeast in China (Jiao 1995; Wang Xiao Qing, 1995). ==

Comparing Very Old Pottery from the Russian Far East with Jomon Pottery

In “On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East,” Irina Zhushchikhovskaya wrote: My inspection of Incipient Jomon ceramics from Kiriyama-Wada and Jin located in Honsu and dated to approximately 12,000-10,000 B.P. suggests some trends involving the technology of paste among these early ceramics. The ceramics from the earliest sites (or components of sites) have a paste prepared of rough, unworked natural clay. The ceramics from later components is characterized by clay in which more of the large particles have been removed, producing a more plastic clay paste that is still untempered. [Source:“On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East” by Irina Zhushchikhovskaya, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Fall 1997), pp. 159-174, University of Hawai'i Press ==]

“Plant fiber-tempering technologyoccurred in the pottery of the Initial and Earliest Jomon periods (Nishida 1987). This technology appeared in the early ceramics of North and Central America (Griffin 1965; Hoopes 1994; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971; Reid 1984), Near East and Central Asia (Amiran 1965; Saiko 1982), and now for the materials from the Russian Far East. There is some evidence for the use of mould forming methods in ceramic assemblages from south and southeast China dated to 10,000-9000 B.P. (Wang Xiao Qing 1995). The use of moulds in the forming process was popular in several areas of Eurasia (Bobrinsky 1978). ==

“According to P. B. Vandiver, the earliest Japanese pottery was formed by a method similar to slab construction. Coiling was not employed in the initial stage of pottery production (Vandiver 1991). The combination of partial moulding and slab construction took place in some cases (Vandiver 1987). Similar examples of this technique were discovered in sites from south China dated between 9000 and 8000 B.P. A roundish stone or a basket may have been used as a mould to which pieces of clay were then applied (Wang Xiao Qing 1995). The coiling method for making pottery is widely represented amongarchaeological assemblages throughout the world. Obvious evidence for this method can be identified among later ceramics from Jomon sites in Japan. == “A relatively simple morphological pattern was a common characteristic of early ceramics. Nonetheless, vessels with a rectangular shape also occurred in early pottery-making. The box-shaped vessels associated with Sakhalin Island’s Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya culture are similar to those from sites in northern Japan dated to 13,000-10,000 B.P. (Suda 1995). ==

“A common trait of both the Russian Far Eastern and Japanese sites is the occurrence of early ceramics together with a lithic industry combining elements from the Late Paleolithic and Neolithic. This may reflect certain technical and social contexts linked to the first appearance of pottery in this part of the world. Because the first discoveries of early ceramics in East Asia occurred in theJapanese archipelago, initial conceptions about the origins of pottery-making emphasized this territory (Ikawa-Smith 1976; Serizawa 1976). The discovery of the new sites containing early ceramics in the Russian Far East indicates that the area of ceramic origins needs to be broadened to include the Sea of Japan basin as a whole (Zhushchikhovskaya 1995b). Clearly, this perspective will lead to more comparative and new field research on the origins of pottery-making.” On Sakhalin Island however, the dates are more recent: “The most archaic pottery-making tradition in this region is connected with the sites of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya archaeological culture (Golubev and Zhushchikhovskaya 1987). It is radiocarbon dated to approximately 6500-6000 B.P. The location of this archaeological culture is the southern portion of Sakhalin Island (Shubin et al. 1984).” ==

Jomon Pottery Typology

Keally wrote: “American archaeologists construct artifact types differently according to the purpose of the typology. The common types are formal (morphological, based on shape), functional (use), stylistic (identity of makers), and temporal (time, chronology). There are vast numbers of publications dealing with typology and types, and the concept of type and the theory of typology, in the American archaeological literature. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, April 21, 2009, ++]

“Japanese archaeologists devote a lot of effort and publication to artifact types, but very little to the concepts of type and typology. Many of their artifact typologies seem to mix the types of types from American archaeology, for example having formal, functional and stylistic types mixed together in what is seen by them as a single typological scheme. ++

“Jomon pottery typology is probably the best discussed typology in Japanese archaeology. The intention of this typology is isolation of very small units of time; it is a temporal typology. Consequently, a single Jomon pottery type contains vessels of many different forms, functions and styles. But these pottery types also are closely associated with specific regions of the country, making them also a type of stylistic type -- types that (are assumed to) identify groups of people who recognized themselves as members of a specific group separate from other similar groups. ++

“The Jomon pottery types have several uses in Japanese archaeology. They provide a time sequence where stratigraphy is missing. The dated types provide a chronology of Jomon history. The types are used to identify cultural regions and cultural areas, and are thought to identify peoples. And types (represented by one or a few sherds or a whole pot) that are out of area are used to align local sequences with each other and to suggest connections between different groups of Jomon people.” ++

Jomon Pottery Typology Process

On the basic process typing Jomon pottery, Keally wrote: “The first step is to isolate all pots that are clearly associated in time. This involves closed study of both vertical and horizontal stratigraphy. Vertical stratigraphy is the standard approach that assumes that things later in time are also shallower in depth in the excavation. In Japan, shellmounds are the best for this purpose, followed by the fill of dwelling pits and cave deposits. Horizontal stratigraphy is overlapping dwelling pits and smaller pits containing pottery or potsherds. Seriation is also used, but informally. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, April 21, 2009, ++]

“The second step is to identify all of the attributes of the pots that are together in time, isolating groups of attributes that identify smaller and smaller slices of time. Obviously, many attributes will also be present on other pot types that are younger or older in a developing sequence, or even on pots that have no genetic relationship to pots of the particular type being looked at. What is important is the total cluster, not individual attributes. And the type concept considers whole pots rather than potsherds, although the attributes of potsherds in the collection are also taken into consideration. ++

“There are broad types, such as Moroiso or Katsuzaka or Kasori E. These types were identified early in the history of Japanese archaeology, and they get their names from the sites where they were first identified, such as Moroiso, Katsuzaka and Kasori E (from location E at the Kasori Shellmound). These types can be seen as stylistic types as well as temporal types. With more excavation, archaeologists were able to see that these types spanned considerable time and had changes in form and style over time. The archaeologists then added shredouts to show this, such as Moroiso a, b and c, or Katsuzaka I, II and III, or Kasori E Ia, Ib, II, III and IV. (This is where the Jomon pottery types were when I entered Japanese archaeology in the late 1960s.) In recent years archaeologists have produced even more detailed temporal types for the Jomon pottery. For example, the 4 Katsuzaka types have been divided into 12 subtypes, and the 4 Kasori E types have been divided into 11 subtypes. These types and subtypes are now being dated as closely as possible to form a detailed chronology of Jomon pottery types, and of the other kinds of artifacts and features associated with those types and subtypes.” +++

Uses of Jomon Pottery

Kawagoe wrote: The invention of pottery gave “people for the first time” a “non-leaky waterproof container. It could be used to boil, stew or steam food, so they could now eat new kinds of foods – leafy vegetables that would have burnt or disintegrated to nothing over a fire grill, shellfish that opened easily, acorns had their poisons boiled out. Very young children and toothless old people could now eat soft-boiled foods. Food could be stored to tide them over in times when food became scarce. The humble pot improved the lives of the hunter-gatherer immensely. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Many of the common upright Jomon pots were used for cooking and storage, narrow-necked vessels for steaming, the smaller bowls for serving food and drink, and sometimes Jomon pottery pieces were used simply for display and decorating the home. Large pots were used by coastal people to evaporate seawater and obtain salt which was traded to groups living inland so that they could make up for the lack of salt in their diet since they ate mostly vegetable foods.

“Apart from pots for cooking and storage, pottery ornaments, earrings, and ritual objects were also created. Lamp-shaped pottery, often found together with clay figurines, and often finely made, were likely used for ritual purposes or special ceremonies. Deep jars were sometimes used as burial containers or funerary jars especially for burying infants and children... Shallow bowls appeared from Early Jomon times, but were used mostly as grave goods. More shallow bowls were made in the later periods and were used for a special ceremonies. For various ceremonies, lamp-shaped pottery and incense-burner shaped ones were also invented... Some scholars think spouted vessels may have been used to contain and pour wine offerings. In the last part of the Jomon era, pottery designs and patterns became finer and plainer and they learnt to make burnished dark pottery as well.”

In September 2013, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A shallow earthenware bowl, sculpted with human facial features and believed to have been used for rituals in the late Jomon period, has been excavated from an archaeological site in Goshogawara, Aomori Prefecture, according to the city’s board of education. Measuring eight centimeters high and 12 centimeters wide, the vessel is shaped like the lower part of a human face with two nostrils in high relief. Its glaze is red, a common color among earthenware for rituals. The board of education said Tuesday that the pottery was discovered in a layer of earth around structural remnants estimated to be 2,500 to 2,600 years old. A large number of animal and fish bones were also discovered there. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 6, 2013]

Komakino pottery

Styles of Jomon Pottery

Kawagoe wrote: “Jomon pots are greatly varied in their shapes: The most common vessels were deep bowls or jars. But the Jomon also made a lot of pottery with other forms: shallow bowls, vessels with narrow mouths, often with long necks and vessels with spouts. Some of the early pots had a unique shape with a square mouth and flat bottom. There were round and pointed bottomed pots and there were flat bottomed pots. Less common were the lamp-shaped pottery and incense-burner shaped ones. The Middle Jomon era showed the greatest variety … the many large jars, ewers and drinking bowls are also evidence that brewing had been discovered, whether they drank beverages of grain or fermented wines made from wild grapes.” [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Deep bowls or jars that turned up everywhere and throughout the Jomon era. “Some had wide necks. Since most of the deep pots excavated had sooty or scorched bottoms, we know they were used for cooking or storage and others, but more rarely, for rituals including burials of the dead. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

A few of the early pots had a unique shape with a square mouth and flat bottom though the majority were round. Many of the early deep pots had pointed bottomed pots useful for sitting well in the sand or soil of bonfires, but flat bottomed ones were more common after the Early Jomon period. In the later periods, pots of more shapes and sizes appeared including ceremonial vessels with spouts and vessels with narrow mouths, often with long necks.

Artistry of Jomon Pottery

Kawagoe wrote: Another reason why scholars and scientists are taken by Jomon pottery is because the beauty, charm and sophistication of much of Jomon pottery is unrivalled in the prehistoric world. The most florid and elaborate pottery were made by people who lived during the Middle Jomon period and who lived in the rugged mountainous interior of Honshu island. The large, highly decorated pots suggest village chiefs competing in lavish feasting. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Despite the fact that all Jomon pottery were hand made and low fired without specially constructed kilns, Jomon potters were very creative – their pots were greatly varied in their shapes and rich ways in which they were decorated. Besides the famous cord-markings (from which the name Jomon was derived), other kinds of decorations included incision, stamping, smoothing, application of strips of clay, sculpturing, and coloring with red or black lacquer.

“Jomon pots were decorated in many rich and different ways. Besides the famous cord-markings (from which the name Jomon was derived), there were pots with twill or feathered markings, bean, shell patterns and fingernail-shaped patterns. Other kinds of decorations included incision, stamping, smoothing, application of strips of clay, sculpturing, and coloring with red or black lacquer.

Jomon beliefs and religion were very rich in symbolism and differed from tribe to tribe and over time.“While many of the earthern pots were made by households, archaeologists also know from recent studies that that some special sites produced pottery and some of these sites acted as communication and distribution centers for other smaller regions. Jomon pottery is found in Ryukyu far to the south as well as on islands distant from the mainland. This means that the Jomon people must have transported their pottery by boats and probably traded them.”

Pottery in the Different Jomon Time Periods

The most elaborate and famous of Jomon pottery were the flame pottery of the Middle Jomon period. But apart from flame pottery, Jomon potters made many kinds of pottery in diverse shapes and styles over the 10,000 years of the Jomon era. The different types of vessels are divided by some experts into four main categories: deep bowls and jars, shallow bowls, vessels with narrow mouth and vessels with spout. Scholars have carefully noted these differences in styles and classed them into six phases with their characteristics. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

clay ear ornament

1) Incipient Jomon period from 10,000-7,000 B.C. : Small deep pointed or round-bottomed pots with very thin walls decorated with beans or with fingernail shaped patterns made by using the split ends of a bamboo stick. 2) Initial Jomon period from 7,000-4,000 B.C.: Round-bottomed or tapered pots decorated with cord-markings made by rolling rope over the sides of the pot, or with linear patterns and seashell impressions. 3) Early Jomon period from 4,000-3,000 B.C.: Pots with incised decorations and carved or sculpted rims, and that were sometimes lacquered.

4) Middle Jomon period from 3,000-1,000 B.C.: Pots and other vessels with thick walls, intricate or flamboyant decorations and patterns, particularly patterns that look like leaping flames. The vessels were sometimes moulded with human faces, snakes and other animal motifs. Lamp-shaped pottery first appear during this period.

5) Late Jomon period from 2,000-1,000 B.C.: Pots were made with finer clay, had thinner walls and came in a wider variety of shapes and styles, including some with spouts. Late Jomon vessels were less decorative and simpler than earlier-made ones. Smooth burnished dark look and curved patterns were preferred. Cord-marked patterns also came back into fashion.

6) Final Jomon period from 1,000-400 B.C. : Pots and their rims were even simpler in design, and a cloud-like pattern of long S-shaped lines became common. More types and styles of pottery were made including shallow bowls and vessels on stands.

Making Jomon Pottery

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “All Jomon pots were made by hand, without the aid of a wheel, the potter building up the vessel from the bottom with coil upon coil of soft clay. As in all other Neolithic cultures, women produced these early potteries. The clay was mixed with a variety of adhesive materials, including mica, lead, fibers, and crushed shells. After the vessel was formed, tools were employed to smooth both the outer and interior surfaces. When completely dry, it was fired in an outdoor bonfire at a temperature of no more than about 900 degrees C. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art. "Jomon Culture (ca. 10,500–ca. 300 B.C.)", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2002, ]

Early Jomon clay head

Kawagoe wrote: Jomon potters “made their pottery by kneading and coiling ropes of clay, then smoothing them together by hand to get a continuous surface. The pottery were sometimes tempered or strengthened with crushed shells, fibres, lead, mica or fool’s gold (phlogopite found only in mountains north of Tokyo and in old streambeds of Kanto regions). Fool’s gold resulted in more heat-resistant clay that baked well and contracted less while drying. Decorations were then added by incising (scratching) with sticks or shells or by rolling cords or ropes over the surface of the pots. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

From Early Jomon days, some Jomon people learnt how to make lacquer using sap from the Rhus verniciflora tree which was sometimes used to coat the insides or outsides of some of the pottery either for decoration or to make the pots waterproof. Lacquering was a very difficult and time consuming process, such pottery was most likely used for ceremonial purposes only. The red coloring of lacquered ware comes from the use of bengara or oxidised iron. In other discoveries at a site in Kagoshima prefecture, bengara or oxidised iron was used to color Jomon earthenware red. Red is a magical color to the Jomon people.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; National Museum of Science, Tokyo kahaku.go; Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido and Northern Tohoku Jomon clay figures, Tokyo National Museum.

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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