Japanese Jomon

CWA takes a picturesque look at Japan's prehistoric Jomon Culture, encompassing their exquisite pottery, Neolithic/Mesolithic economy and ritual beliefs.


The Jomon must be one of the most perverse cultures in the world: it does not fit into any of the usual categories. It is tempting to say that it is the Japanese Mesolithic for it comes after the late Palaeolithic, and the economy consisted entirely of hunting and gathering. There is no hint of agriculture, which is a key criterion for the Neolithic.

But it is also tempting to call it the Japanese Neolithic for it has many of the characteristics of the Neolithic. The most obvious is pottery: the very word Jomon itself means ‘twisted cord pattern’ and the highly elaborate forms of Jomon pottery with their twisted cord pattern decoration are some of the most exotic pottery in the world.

The Jomon people also very early on ceased being mobile and instead settled down, worked out a highly complex system of collecting and storing food, and constructed large villages of well-built pit houses and indeed long houses. So in many ways they are Neolithic.

Indeed, one might even claim that they were Japanese Bronze Age people, for although they never invented bronze or any form of metal working, they nevertheless became a complex sedentary society, producing large villages that are typical of the Bronze Age in much of the world. Indeed they have structures that one might consider to be comparable to henge monuments, aligned on the position of the sun.

But above all the culture was very long lasting. The Jomon began right back in the Ice Age, around 13,000 BC when they produced some of the earliest pottery in the world (as reported in CWA 1): pottery implies food preparation, an important step towards a sophisticated life. They then continue for a further 12,000 years, and it was not until around 800 BC that the Jomon was replaced by the very different metal-using Yayoi culture, introduced by rice-eating Koreans. So this must make it just about the longest lasting culture in the world: what then was this Jomon culture?

Uncovering the evidence: How to excavate a waterlogged Jomon site. Since Jomon times, the level of Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest inland lake, near Kyoto – has risen and when they wanted to dredge a new path for shipping, two Jomon villages were discovered on the lake bed.
Solution: Put a coffer dam around each site, pump out, and excavate on dry land. The two coffer dams can be seen above. The excavation inside the coffer dam can be seen below. This was a spectacular dig – even by Japanese standards.

The Jomon culture is now the subject of a splendid new book in full colour called Jomon Reflections: Forager life and culture in the prehistoric Japanese archipelago, published by Oxbow for the Sainsbury Institute. The book has been masterminded and put together by Simon Kaner of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture, in Norwich. He has taken a series of essays by Tatsuo Kobayashi, Professor of Archaeology at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo who has been described as the Japanese Mortimer Wheeler in his zeal to popularise archaeology. This has been translated and illustrated with help from Oki Nakamura, the Handa Archaeology Fellow at the Sainsbury Institute, and the text has been smoothed out and edited for a western audience and a large number of magnificent colour plates have been inserted with long captions.

The Sainsbury Institute has generously allowed us to use these illustrations and the text to form a basis for this article and to make this into an introduction to the Jomon culture itself. We begin by looking at the exotic pottery, then at their economy, their settlements and finally their art and religion.

Jomon: The Pots

Jomon pottery appeared at around the 14th-13th millennia BC, making it probably the earliest pottery in the world. It developed through four main stages of cultural and technical development, say the archaeologists: in its earliest incarnation, the pottery was fairly crude, undecorated ware, known as mumon in Japanese, but by the end of the Jomon the designs of pots include a system of symbols that have an almost literary aspect. And as you view its development over the coming pages of this article, one gains a fascinating glimpse into the minds of the people who made it.

Soon the potters began to branch out and produce more elaborate pots. This ‘Stage Two’ plain open bowl is decorated all over with cord markings running in vertical bands down to the base. 
 An altogether more ambitious ‘Stage Two’ pot, with four pointed shoulders and elaborate spiral decorations, foreshadowing some of the very elaborate shapes that were to come later.

The Image Stage (Stage One) The bland appearance of the pottery in Stage One belies its importance. For with its emergence in the Incipient Jomon Period came a whole new freedom of cultural expression; not least because it allowed people to experiment with how foods are cooked, stored and presented.

It is interesting to note how in this beginning stage, the potters simply reproduced everyday objects in clay – basketry, wooden objects, and bags made of animal skins – just as if they were copying images of these objects held in their heads. For this reason, Stage One is also known as the ‘Image Stage’.

Two popular shapes were bullet-shaped deep pots with round bases, but also square pots with flat bases. Advice from practising potters as well as the results of experimental archaeology suggests that it is actually very difficult to make square pots with flat bases with good balance. Were the Incipient Jomon potters copying – to poor effect – flat wooden vessels, or flat baskets? .

Pottery’s own identity (Stage Two) During the subsequent Initial Jomon period, pottery Stage Two emerged. From then on, the ceramicists gave up on the tricky rectangular flat-bottomed style, instead favouring round-based deep pots. The preference for a form that worked best in clay indicates that Jomon pottery was now acquiring an identity of its own, as well as a new artistic appreciation. The pots were now decorated with simple, yet beautifully executed designs most often cord-marks applied to the surface of the vessel.

Some of the earliest Jomon pots, of the Incipient phase. These examples date to the 10th millennium BC and come from the Muroya cave – in this early stage, the Jomon were still living in caves. These early examples tend to reproduce everyday objects in clay.

Experimental archaeology suggests that the designs were made by carefully twisting cords at an angle to the surface of the pot, then twisting and tightening the cords so they left their impressions in the leather-hard clay. These vessels represent the modest forerunners of a new tradition of pottery decoration that was soon to include designs achieved by rolling sticks with carved patterns across the surface of the pots, or pressing shells into the clay before firing the vessels. In turn, these new techniques gave rise to increasingly complex designs of Stage Three in the Early Jomon.

A pedestal dish (below) and a knobbed style spouted pot (above). Both are crafted with such a sense of verve and vitality that it is easy to imagine the Jomon sitting down to use them on special occasions.

Pottery for new purposes (Stage Three) Previously, pottery had been made simply for cooking food. But at the beginning of the Early Jomon period new vessel shapes for other purposes begin to appear, including shallow dishes for serving food and storage jars. This diversification in vessel form and function was accompanied by some new and striking motifs, which created a dramatic effect on the overall visual impact of the pot.

The peak of pottery (Stage Four) Jomon pottery reaches its zenith in the Middle to the Final Jomon. During the Middle Jomon, pottery began to be used in an entirely novel fashion as it became associated with more than just food. For the first time, the potters broke the link between pottery as a utensil or a container, and food.

One of the finest Jomon pottery type was the so-called flame style pot, where the elaborate rims resemble flames, which existed in the Middle and Late Jomon. These spectacular vessels, although not bearing any cord marked decoration, are considered among the greatest achievements of any Jomon potters. Two types of flame pots have been recognised.

Now, in some areas it was used for burial urns in funerary rituals, while pottery lamps began to bring light to Jomon buildings after dark and in winter.

Artistically the most stunning change also happens by the Late Jomon, when even more elaborate pottery forms emerge. These include vessels that seem – to our eye – to be very strangely shaped, such as pots with irregular bodies perched on pottery feet.

Patterns also begin to display a markedly narrative quality. Indeed, some of these motifs become so standardised that archaeologists have suggested that an appropriate analogy would be printed images. Perhaps such motifs were widely recognised by many members of the communities in which these designs occurred, speculate the researchers. Indeed sometimes the motifs appear rather abbreviated, only partly formed or asymmetrical. Such motifs include curvy ‘S’ shapes, ‘daggers’ and forms reminiscent of the bulging eyes of dragonflies, perhaps symbolising particular concepts.

One of the masterpieces of the Middle Jomon potters. By Stage Four, the patterns begin to display a markedly narrative quality. Indeed some of these motifs become so standardised that archaeologists have suggested that an appropriate analogy would be with printed images. This pot is notable for its ‘dagger’ motifs.
Another deep pot of the Middle Jomon period from Jurobara, 55cms high. This Stage Four pot is decorated with the so-called dancer motif, as drawn below. However, other archaeologists prefer to call it, more prosaically, the S-shaped motif. It seems the motifs belong to a sophisticated system of symbolism.

In time, the motifs often become the focus of the whole design field of the pot. Even though the precise meaning of the motifs expressed remains undecipherable to us, it seems the motifs belong to a sophisticated system of symbolism; their meanings perhaps remembered and reinforced to the Jomon people during ceremonies and rituals.

Right One of the masterpieces of the Middle Jomon potters. By Stage Four, the patterns begin to display a markedly narrative quality. Indeed some of these motifs become so standardised that archaeologists have suggested that an appropriate analogy would be with printed images. This pot is notable for its ‘dagger’ motifs.

Jomon houses

Having previewed their pottery, let us look now at their houses. Shown above is a typical Jomon house: a pit dwelling, cut down into the subsoil. This is a good example though the flared entrance is an unusual feature.

One of the most famous examples (seen above) is from Namesaka, Tokyo, where a complete village was excavated with the circular pit dwellings set round a central plaza. Note that the houses appear to be in two groups, one top and left, the other bottom and right: this so-called duality is seen in many Jomon villages. Japanese archaeologists are constantly debating how far notions of duality reflects an important principle of Jomon social organisation: did people essentially organise themselves in opposing (although not necessarily antagonistic!) terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’?

At Yukuseone, Jomon houses have been reconstructed in this Historical park.

Round house reconstruction One of the best known Jomon settlements is the middle Jomon settlement at Yusukeone in Nagano prefecture in central Japan, now made into a historical park, and seen on the opposite page, below. To English eyes the reconstruction seems unusual with a round house being surmounted by a gable roof. The evidence for this is shown in the drawing with the four postholes. Should perhaps English roundhouses be reconstructed in this way? Or should the Japanese roundhouses be reconstructed in the English way?

The Rectangular house at Fudodo

There were also some longhouses in the Jomon, as in this example at Fudodo in the Toyama prefecture on the north coast. This also appears to have a dual nature as illustrated in the plan. In the northern half the two hearths were circular, in the bottom half they were rectangular: three postholes across the centre appear to have divided it into two. More grist to the arguments about ‘duality’?

The Jomon economy

We turn now to the intriguing question of the economy of the Jomon people, which simply does not conform to European methodological characterisations. The Jomon people were hunter gatherers and thus by European terms, still Mesolithic. Nevertheless they had settled down and lived in villages and of course used pottery – two vital characteristics of the Neolithic.

Though they were not farmers in the sense that we understand it (that is, there is no clear evidence that they domesticated plants and animals), they did have a highly well organised system of food collection and storage.

A prime source of food was fish and shell fish and here (below) we see a 4m deep section through a shell midden at Nakazato, near Tokyo. However its use appears to have been seasonal. Spring was the season for collecting fish and shell fish and presumably preserving them in pits for consumption in the rest of the year.

A section through a Jomon shell midden (a rubbish dump of discarded marine shells). Such seasonal middens are often associated with a Mesolithic mode of gathering.

Furthermore, whereas agriculturalists reply typically on a very narrow range of foodstuffs, the Jomon people exploited a very wide range of food gathering shellfish and seaweed in the spring, fishing in the summer, gathering nuts in the autumn, and hunting a wide range of animals in the winter. This is a rational approach, after all, do you prefer variety or monotony in your food?

Above we see an object that European and Middle Eastern archaeologists will easily identify as a quern stone. But this is not for grinding wheat but for grinding acorns and other nuts. Nuts, particularly chestnuts and acorns were also a major food source for the Jomon, indeed nuts were probably their staple food. However, many nuts – such as horse chestnuts and acorns need processing to remove the tannic acids and to thus make them edible. One possible way to do this is shown below. This hearth with a large pot in the middle comes from Sasayama and has been interpreted as an ash making facility: the acid can be removed from chestnuts particularly effectively by boiling the nuts with ash.

The ancient Jomon exchange networks

The archipelago has a variety of ecological niches. Archaeologists suggest that a particular group would settled in a given area for millennia, expertly adapting to each particular niche. However since each niche lacked certain resources, exchange with other groups was important (around 70 distinct groups have been defined based on studies into pottery style zones).

It seems that this need for diverse resources gave rise to wide exchange networks. Some goods travelled long distances. A good example of a widely-travelled commodity is asphalt, which was used as a glue to mend pots and attach arrows to shafts. Asphalt naturally occurs on the coastal regions of the Sea of Japan in Akita, Yamagata and Niigata Prefectures but was transported to the other side of the archipelago in the Jomon, turning up in the Kanto region (see distribution map).

But were the Jomon in contact with people from much wider afield? This lacquered bowl below from the early Jomon period provides an interesting puzzle. Lacquer is a technique that is usually considered to have been introduced from China but this bowl is earlier than any lacquer found in China.

Art and Ritual

Given the artistic accomplishment of Jomon pottery, the beauty apparent in their portable art comes as little surprise. One of the most compelling Jomon artefact is the clay figurine.

A great deal of interpretation has been levied at these figurines, which occur almost throughout the Jomon period, starting in the middle of the Initial Jomon.

But what were they for? Many must have been borne from the spiritual beliefs of Jomon people. Initially they were modelled without a face. The artists simply made a small impression above the shoulders at most. It is almost as though their makers were deliberately avoiding creating any lifelike facial features or expressions. Their physical proportions are also often unrealistic, which has nothing to do with any lack of figurative ability of their makers.

The earlier figurines had indistinct heads.
This superb large standing figure 45cm high, was excavated at Nishinomai in Yamagata prefecture in the northern part of mainland Japan. The head is indistinct but with an elaborate headdress or helmet. But the ‘flared jeans’ somehow look very modern.

Perhaps these figurines were expressions of shapeless presences that were not actual Jomon gods, nor direct representations of Jomon people, nor just toys to be played with by children. Rather, perhaps they were the expressions of shapeless presences thought to inhabit the natural and human-made objects that surrounded the Jomon people.

By the later Jomon, figurines were becoming more elaborate and the faces were becoming distinct and are often classified by types.

This ‘Venus’ figurine, our cover girl, is one of the best known of all Jomon works of art. It was found at Tanabatake, in the Nagano prefecture in the centre of Japan where it was excavated complete from a small pit in the centre of a middle Jomon village. The figure is make of solid clay and is 27cm high, and weighs 2kg. Stylistically there is much of interest. In the Middle Jomon, heads are just beginning to appear, though note the elaborate headdress. Perhaps the most remarkable feature are the very small breasts, which are unusual for a ‘fat lady’ type. However there is a pronounced belly – was she pregnant? – and she has a fine pair of hips, and sturdy legs. She makes a worthy and interesting addition to the other Venus fat ladies from around the world.

From the pottery to the Venus figurines to the Henges, Jomon has so many very familiar elements, and yet it represents a culture so very different from archaeologies closer to home. Yet it spikes our fascination and lures our imagination.

The best-known art form of the Jomon was the clay figurine. The majority of these were small, small enough to be held in the hand in some form of private ritual. They are found by the hundred.

Here we see a small selection of the 1,116 broken clay figurines from Shakado in Yamanashi prefecture, near Mount Fuji. The very large number of figurines from this one site suggests that certain settlements were centres for rituals involving figurines.
By the later Jomon, figurines were becoming more elaborate and the faces were becoming distinct and are often classified by types. Above is the ultimate Jomon head with its square eyes which could well pass for realism in modern art.
Jomon Reflections, by Tatsuo Kobayashi is published by Oxbow Books for £25. You can buy your copy direct from CWA - surf to www.archaeology.co.uk, call us on 020 7435 7517, or send a cheque (payable to Current Archaeology) to: 9 Nassington Road, London, NW3 2TX.

The Sainsbury Institute is at : 64, The Close, Norwich NR1 4DW, tel: 01603-624349 http://www.sainsbury-institute.org For further information, see their web site at http://www.jomon.org.uk/, which is in process of being up-graded.

Our thanks are also due to the various Japanese Institutions who supplied the photos in the first place, many of them local museums, or the Boards of Education of local government throughout Japan. Thank you!