This net-patterned cauldron was unearthed in the Tanshishan Culture Site (c. 3500–2000 BC) in Minhou County, Fujian. During the Neolithic period, fishing and hunting were advanced in in southern China, so the net-pattern was a representation of fishing ge
The prehistoric art of pottery originated from both the practical needs of life, and from an essential truth that far went beyond pure survival. The act of beating first emerged as an unremarkable action during ancient peoples’ labor work. These people could not have known that this simple action would go on to influence classical decorative motifs for generations thousands of years later.
Since its earliest origins, mankind has been unable to survive without three basic elements: water, fire, and earth. Transformation of one’s own habitat is a process that begins with the soil beneath one’s feet. People soon realized that clay’s firmness is influenced by its water content, and that one could leverage this to mold the clay into different vessels and shapes, which could then be cured by fire, which solidified the objects. These simple steps were the genesis for the entire pottery craft. If that’s how pottery itself originated, then where did pottery’s patterns come from?
According to one school of thought, pottery was first developed in connection with weaving. For example, in order to make a woven rattan basket more durable and fire-resistant, ancient craftsmen would cover its sides with clay paste and treat it with fire — resulting in a sort of proto-pottery bowl or basin. As these objects were produced, the craftsmen’s utensils would leave a woven pattern imprinted on the clay. Today, researchers believe these incidental but attractive patterns influenced ancient society, which began to place an emphasis on pursuing pottery with aesthetic beauty. Yet this was by no means the earliest occurrence of decorative patterns in ancient pottery.
During the 1990s, the Archeology Department at Peking University, in combination with the Archaeology and Cultural Relics Research Institute of Jiangxi Province and America’s Andover Archeological Foundation, conducted an excavation of Jiangxi’s hundreds-year-old Xianren Cave and Diaotonghuan Ruins, where distinct evidences of transition from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic Age were discovered.
In 2009, Chinese and American archaeologists
once-again gathered samples from a soil strata profile, conducting carbon-14 tests on a large pottery fragment unearthed inside the cave. The tests indicated that the pottery had originated more than 20,000 years in the past — making it the oldest pottery recovered anywhere in the world to date. After undergoing cleaning and restoration, it was clear that the surface of the pottery contained a distinct rope pattern.
Based on the shape of the recovered pottery fragments, experts determined the likely production methods used by those ancient locals: one is the layering of clay sheets and the other is the coiling of clay ropes. In the first method, rectangular bricks of clay are stacked layer- on-layer, before a craftsman would take a tool made of bamboo, wood, or jugged and flaky bone-made tools, leaving basket-like patterns along the inside and outside of the pottery. Of course, these patterns could also be toweled by hands to produce pottery with a smooth and unpatterned surface.
In the second method, strips of clay two to three centimeters in diameter are layered atop one another, and are then beaten with a bat enwound with ropes or fiber, leaving a pattern of distinctive impressions on the surface. The imprints vary in thickness, usually between one and three millimeters. These rope or basket patterns cannot, however, be regarded as decorative motifs: rather, they are merely a part of the manufacturing process, helping to strengthen the pottery.
The continuous beating helps bind the clay of the pottery, while allowing its walls to be made thinner and lighter. Pottery produced using this method enjoys a much greater carrying capacity — such as when filled with water — than pottery produced using other methods. The only way to increase the weight-carrying capacity of traditional pots is to increase the relative thickness of the pot’s walls which, of course, also increases its weight and size — which had an adverse effect on the pot’s working lifespan. Simply put, pottery that has undergone the process of continuous beating is stronger, less prone to leaks, more stable, and has a larger carrying capacity.
The “beating” technique to produce pottery was used throughout the Neolithic Era. During the era’s late period, the ancient Yue peoples of southern China (all peoples who resided around the Lower Yangtze and in vast swaths of the southern region prior to the Qin and Han dynasties) perhaps became inspired to begin imprinting their pottery with decorative patterns. In this way, the simple pattern that arose from “beating” pottery can be described as the true originator of decorative patterns.
Rope was an important everyday tool of the Neolithic people and left its mark as patterns on pottery. The twisted rope pattern on the upper part of this Neolithic colored pottery pot is a distinct example. Photo/ QUANJING
This pottery shard with checkered and spiral patterns was discovered in Suzhou, Jiangsu. Archaeologists surmise that the spiral pattern originated from whirlpools that appeared in water while the ancients were fishing. A wide range of ancient decorative patterns was inspired by man’s daily life. For instance, many archaeologists believe that the rhombus pattern is an abstraction of a fish scale.
These are two rubbings of Shang Dynasty geometric pattern pottery shards unearthed in Erligang Ruins in Zhengzhou, Henan.
This raised circle pattern on the clay fragment unearthed in eastern Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, is believed to be derived from the eyes of fish.