Jomon Period Houses, Pottery & Art in Japan

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the art of Prehistoric Japan created during the Jomon Period. Explore the pottery, figurines and other artistic creations from this time. Also, study the main characteristics of the first houses to be built.

The Jomon Period

Japan is a nation with a long history and thousands of years of culture. Although there is evidence of humans living there for over 35,000 years, the sedentary lifestyle, architecture and other arts started to develop during the Jomon period. It was the birth of culture in Japan.

The Jomon period is the earliest era of Japanese history and is considered part of the Neolithic or New Stone Age. The Jomon started around year 10,500 BCE, although the date is subject to discussion among scholars. There is not a general consensus about the end date either, but most agree on year 300 BCE. The name Jomon comes from the pottery of that time, which had decorative patterns created with cord pieces; Jomon roughly translates to cord pattern.

Jomon Pottery
Jomon Pottery

Jomon Houses

The earliest forms of Japanese architecture date from the Jomon period. Human groups progressively evolved from hunting and gathering to a more sedimentary culture with early forms of agriculture and intensive fishing. With those early settlements, came the first constructions.

The main type of construction was the pit house. It consisted of structures built out of wood. Timber was used as inner posts to support the roof, which was made with several layers of straw or other dry vegetation. The walls were built similarly. Some houses were circular, while others were elongated and they were often partly dug into the ground, to keep the interior warmer. Some constructions had floors paved with stones.

Reconstruction of a Jomon House
Reconstruction of a Jomon House

The houses were mainly used as dwellings, but also for cooking and storing small quantities of goods. Placing fireplaces inside the houses brought several benefits; fire helped to keep insects away and also provided heat for the occupants. There were usually openings on the upper part of the roof for the smoke to come out.

Several houses were often build close to each other, in a semi-circular array. That created a common outdoor space that was probably used for ceremonies and for producing different craft objects. In some communities, it was also used for burials.

Villages served for housing, burring the dead, producing crafts and for performing rituals. However, some member of the community usually went outside on a daily basis to collect food and gather clay, wood and other materials.

Some settlements had raised structures, similar to the pit houses but with a square layout and no openings on the roof. They were used as warehouses for larger amounts of food. Elevating the structure helped to keep wild animals and some insects away.

Reconstruction of a Jomon Warehouse
Reconstruction of a Jomon Warehouse

Some villages also had watchtowers. These were tall structures built with timber frames. They featured one or more raised platforms, which were used to guard the village and the surroundings either from wild animals or from potential enemies.

Jomon Pottery

Pottery was probably the most distinctive form of art during the Jomon period. The pieces were made out of clay, usually combined with fibers or crushed shells. The production process was entirely made by hand and the pieces were first modeled and then smoothed inside and outside. The decoration was done by pressing cords against the outside of the piece following different patterns. Finally, the piece was heated in fire.

The early examples of pottery were small pieces, light enough to be carried around by hunters. They were mostly used for cooking.

With a semi-sedentary lifestyle, the need of carrying pottery pieces diminished and agriculture rose the demand for storage containers, so larger vessels started to be produced. At the same time, the larger pieces made it possible to keep more provisions for times of shortage. Therefore, the need of moving around was further reduced.

The pottery from the middle and late Jomon period was sophisticated and pieces had very elaborate decorative patterns; clay details on the upper part were usually included as well. Abstract motifs of lines and spirals were common.

A decorated Jomon Vessel
A decorated Jomon Vessel

Jomon Clay Figures and Other Arts

Other forms of arts and crafts objects were closely related to daily activities and ceremonial practices.

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