25 October, 2008

The Primacy of Rope in Japanese Aesthetics

Ages before the Pharaohs used it to construct the Pyramids, thousands of years before Oppian of Corycus described its use in fishing nets, and about the time humans started using vessels to cook and store goods, the Japanese were adorning things with rope.

Japanese pre-history is divided into what in Japanese archeological terms is called the "Pre-ceramic" period, and the "Jomon" period. The molding and firing of clay was a monumental technological advance among ancient peoples, and in the archipelago of Japan the ceramic arts may be said to mark the beginning of permanent settlement and the birth of an aesthetic culture. The Jomon people are not only credited with the first manufacture of serviceable clay pots, but at a very early stage of the technology’s development began decorating what they were making.

The first potsherds found in Japan were undecorated and date to the late Paleolithic period, approximately 15,000 years ago. The relative paucity of fired bits of such vintage suggest that while firing clay was known among Pre-ceramic peoples in Japan, the carrying of earthenware vessels was impractical given their nomadic ways. Based on the scant evidence, it is not well-established whether the Pre-ceramic peoples of Japan produced vessels or implements of some other unknown utility. The crude contour and smallness of the Pre-ceramic craft does suggest either a very prosaic or experimental view of the use of low-fired ceramics (see Kainer, Simon, "The Oldest Pottery in the World", Current World Archaeology, September 2003, pp. 44-49). However, the advent of pottery in Japan attends the first permanent settlements, the founding of agriculture and advances in social organization that would be understood as characteristic of the ascendant Jomon culture.

The elevation of pottery as a vital economic good during the 10,000 years of the Jomon period established one of the earliest man-made mediums of self expression, and a living cultural tradition still prized in modern Japan. Along with the pots themselves was something of far greater interest for our purposes here, namely, the ideas being expressed. The word Jomon is from the Japanese for “cord-marked” or “cord-marking,” or in some translations “rope-marked.” Whatever other practical uses rope may have been put to in Jomon culture (and one assumes that such uses were many), its entire epoch in Japan has been distinguished in name and artifact by an affinity for rope as an aesthetic good.

Japanese Pre-history, Briefly

It was on the Kanto plain in the vicinity of modern Tokyo that the first shards of Jomon creativity revealed themselves. Evidence of human habitation on the land mass that is modern day Japan dates to over 30,000 years ago during the last ice age when sea levels were significantly lower and temperatures much cooler, and Japan was connected to the Korean Peninsula and southern Siberia by several routes, or possibly a single expansive land bridge. The remains of flint tools consistent with late, or upper, Paleolithic technology have been found of the northern island of Hokkaido and the central island of Honshu, placing their makers not only in Japan, but also identifying them as nomadic hunter-gatherers with much the same seasonal ranges and tribal behaviors as their brethren to the west.

In most archaeological schools of thought pottery making is associated with the advent of agriculture; the fact of a harvest understandably necessitates a means of storing same, and thus does pottery appear in Mesopotamia around 7500 B.C.E. as grain cultivation developed and spread. The shard record reveals that the peoples of pre-literate Japan, however, began experimenting with pot making as early as 13,500 B.C.E., long before agriculture is known to have been introduced to Japan. The record also states pretty plainly that during this time these same people still organized themselves in small groupings, were nomadic and moved with the seasons following game. What small examples as exist tend to point to the manufacture of fist-sized spherical pots of no discernible utility - not capacious enough to store rice enough for even a single person’s daily needs, nor robust enough to use over an open flame. It is possible, therefore, to suggest that, in addition to being hard evidence of the earliest ceramic technology, pots were cast for their own sake since they lacked conceivable utility. It was, one could allow, something of an art in a primitive (but nonetheless rigorous) sense of the word. Evidence from later Jomon periods would elaborate on this idea.

Pottery making is one of the markers of the Neolithic era in human history. We’ve already noted that the advent of ceramic technology in Japan reaches back to the upper Paleolithic era and may be the bridge event that prompts most scholars to suggest that the Mesolithic era of human technological development does not apply to Japan – culture went from Paleo to Neo directly. The heirs to the “Incipient” Joman, so-called owing precisely to their pot making, were the Jomon proper, literally, the “people of the cord.”

To be continued...


Asobime said...

Damn Mac....

I remember your explaining to me in NYC about the Jomon people and the decorating their pots with rope. I had come across this just a few months before in my own studies..but you make it live!

I need to come back here more frequently (life does get in the way of higher pleasures as found here) and baste in your writing and your own research.

Miss you, dear friend. Will catch up, at least with your blog writing.


Mac K. said...

Thanks Jane :)

You're right about life and its complications - witness the thinness of my own contributions here lately. Also, I've not forgotten your invitation and am simply looking toward when the days have a little more spaciousness. That will be fun. ;)


Anonymous said...

Neolithic cultures all over the WORLD decorated their pottery with rope- not just in Japan.


Marrow said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marrow said...

Hi Mac. So glad to have found you here :)
Just starting to read you now. I have a lot of catching up to do, I see.
Kind regards from The Netherlands

Mac K. said...

True, feyrieprincess, in fact rope was a commonplace decorative motif for pottery in the Neolithic period, and pottery itself is considered one of the "new" tools conferring the designation of Neolithic.

Rope as a tool predates even the Paleolithic period and was widespread from Asia to Africa. What makes the Japanese case special is that the Jomon considered rope not merely a tool, but an aesthetic as early as the Paleolithic period, many thousands of years before other peoples.

Mac K. said...

Marrow! Dear fellow and purveyor of the best jute in the West! Always a pleasure to have your words across any medium.