China, Gansu or Qinghai Province; Neolithic period Gansu Yangshao culture, Banshan type, about 3rd - 2nd millennium B.C.E.
China, Gansu or Qinghai Province:
Neolithic period about 3rd-2nd millennium B.C.E.
Earthenware painted with red and black slips
H. 15 5/8 in. D. 13 ¾ in.
Ceramics have been produced in China for more than eight thousand years. The range of objects has been enormous: architectural, burial, utilitarian, luxury, trade, and ceremonial. The Chinese ceramic objects preserved today amount to only a small portion of the huge numbers produced. However, shards (fragments of ceramics) survive in large numbers and contribute to the our knowledge of the past.
The earliest Chinese ceramics may date from around 10,000 B.C.E., but scholars can trace a continuous development only from the date of the earliest known pottery kilns, the 6th or 5th millennia B.C.E.
Distinct Neolithic cultures, characterized by permanent settlements and a life style based on agriculture, developed along the two main rivers of China, the Yellow River, in the north, and the Yangzi, in the south, by about 5000 B.C.E. Millet was farmed in the north, while rice was cultivated in the south. Although mostly tools of chipped or shaped stones, or of carved bones or tusks, were made, several of these cultures also created ritual and decorative carvings of jade. The difficulty in carving and polishing this hard mineral attests to an advanced technological level, while the complicated imagery shows a developed interest in artistic representation. Human figures, animals, stylized plants, and abstract geometric designs are found in both pottery and jade.
Until the beginning of China's historic age (the 16th century B.C.E.), a series of distinguishable cultures followed, or coexisted with, each other. Distinctive ceramics are associated with most of these civilizations.
How to look at this work
This jar has a narrow base, a flared out middle, and a rather long and narrow neck. There are two lugs at the neck and two at the middle. The upper portion is painted while the lower remains bare. A band of lozenge shapes is around the middle of the jar. Above this is a large-scale, meandering scroll design of red and black fringed bands centered on four roundels. The neck is painted with triangles at its base and a net-like design of intersecting lines at the top. It is possible that these motifs possessed meaning, but we do not know what it was.
While Neolithic ceramics were utilitarian objects, it is assumed that painted ceramics, like this jar, may also have been used as ritual objects or to show the high status of their owner. The two small lugs at the top of the neck may have secured a cover while the two larger lugs on either side may have served to carry or tip the jar. Perhaps the lower half was left unpainted because the jar was meant to be partially buried in the ground.
How this object was made
This jar was made from earthenware, a coarse and grainy clay, using the coil method. The body was smoothed by hand or by beating with a paddle on the outside against a pad on the inside of the pot. The design was painted on the surface using black and red pigment made from iron oxide. Firing was done in simple kilns dug into the ground at a temperature between 800 and 1050 degrees Celsius. The final step was to burnish the surface.