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Introducing the Ancient Art of Jōmon Pottery

There are so many notable periods, movements, and events directly related to art and art history. While many art teachers are continually seeking to discover and learn new things, it’s simply impossible to know it all. Looking back on your undergraduate schooling, you were probably required to choose from various art history courses to fulfill your degree requirements. There were so many to choose from and not enough time to take them all. You may have opted for a Women in Art History course instead of a Greek Art History course.

As a result, you probably discovered some really awesome women artists but were left not knowing much about Greek art. When it comes to art, we naturally flock to the artists and movements that pique our interest. It’s also important to have a well-rounded background to share with our students, as they aren’t always going to share our same interests. So, where do you start? Well, that can be tricky to determine. It’s important to consider relevant and interesting periods and movements to get students excited about making art.

One art period that is interesting for students and serves as a great introduction to a ceramics unit is the Jōmon Period.

Jomon vessel
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/44905

A Brief History of the Jōmon Period

The Jōmon period is the earliest historical era of Japanese history, dating back to 14,000 B.C.E.–300 B.C.E. It coincides with the Japanese Neolithic period, meaning this was during the New Stone Age when settlers gave up the hunter-gatherer role and began creating settlements for farming. Because the Jōmon people found themselves on an island, they still relied on hunting, gathering, and fishing as they were near the ocean. Rice farming would not be introduced into the Jōmon agricultural revolution until near the end of the period in 900 B.C.E. There were many phases in the Jōmon period; you can discover more about them here.

About Jōmon Pottery

Jōmon pottery vessels are the oldest in the world. They are characterized by their decoration from impressions, which resemble rope. The word Jōmon means “cord markings” or “patterns.”

Jomon pottery
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/50165

Because the Jōmon period covered a great deal of time, the vessels themselves changed throughout the period. However, these are the notable characteristics you will find on the ceramic pieces:

  • All Jōmon pots were made by hand.
  • Building from the bottom up, coils were primarily used to construct the vessels.
  • As in most neolithic cultures, it is believed that women were the primary creators of Jōmon pots.
  • The clay used to form the vessels can be found with a mixture of materials and fibers, including mica and shells.
  • Jōmon vessels were made for functional uses like cooking and storing.
  • Jōmon pots are decorative vessels that have cord markings and ornate designs and figurines.
  • After construction, the coils were smoothed out in their entirety, both inside and out.
  • Since kilns were not yet invented to fire the vessels, it’s believed that bonfires were used to reach a low-fire temperature of up to 900°C or 1652°F.
  • Some pots used lacquer, created by sap from the Rhus verniciflua tree, for waterproofing.

6 types of Jōmon vessels have been identified throughout the entirety of the Jōmon Era.

  1. Fukabachi: Most common vessel form; characterized by deep bowls and jars with wide mouths and tapered necks
  2. Asabachi: Shallow and low-depth clay pots
  3. Hachi: Pots with a more moderate depth
  4. Sara: Very shallow vessels; reminiscent of a plate or platter
  5. Tsubo: Narrow-mouthed vessels with long necks
  6. Chuko: A vessel with a spout

Bringing Jōmon Pottery to the Classroom

We often discuss functionality when introducing students to clay. Comparing the function of modern-day ceramics to that from the Jōmon period can be eye-opening. Typically speaking, it’s easy for students to identify that ceramic-built pieces could have been used for drinking and eating, as these are forms they often see in the use of mugs, plates, and bowls.

Jomon pottery
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39660

However, it isn’t as easy for them to grasp ceramic items being used for food storage instead of a refrigerator or pantry. They’re familiar with using pots and pans for cooking rather than using cord-patterned ornate ceramic vessels. After learning about the Jōmon era and pottery, download the activity below to get your students thinking about ceramics’ function.

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A Modern Coil Lesson

After introducing your students to the ancient art of Jōmon pottery, connect it to the modern-day. Challenge students to create their own Jōmon-inspired vessel. Here are some project requirements to jumpstart your students.

student created vessels

  • Must be a minimum of 6″ tall, but no taller than 12″.
  • Make the vessel with coils.
  • Walls are to be 1/4″ thick.
  • It must curve both inward and outward or vice versa at least once.
  • Create decoration with additive and subtractive design.
  • Consider the function of the vessel.

These open-ended requirements will allow your students to connect present-day art with that of the past.

When considering what ancient art ideas you want to introduce to your students, think about the connections students can make. Finding ties to contemporary culture will allow for a deeper learning experience. While no art teacher can know it all, choosing a few ancient techniques to explore with students can challenge the way they see art in the modern world. The next time you decide to do coil pottery with your students, don’t forget to infuse a little ancient art from the Jōmon period!

What is your favorite period of ancient art?
Do you teach your students about the Jōmon period?

Abby is a middle school art teacher in Omaha, NE. She focuses on creating meaningful experiences for her students through technology integration, innovation, and creativity.

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