Flame and Water pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan

4 October 2012 – 20 January 2012
Room 3. Free
Supported by The Asahi Shimbun

Two spectacular Japanese prehistoric pots dating from the Middle Jōmon period (3500-2500 BCE) will shortly go on display as part of the Asahi Shimbun Displays in Room 3. The rare loans from the Nagaoka Municipal Science Museum consist of a ‘flame’ and ‘crown’ pot which will be exhibited alongside the British Museum’s own example of a Jōmon pot which featured in the series A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Both the flame pot and the crown pot, excavated from the Iwanohara site, Nagaoka city, are distinctly and beautifully decorated. Jōmon potters did not use a wheel but constructed the vessels by hand, coiling the clay and then paddling it to firm up the shape. The term Jōmon (縄文) literally means ‘cord marked’ and is used to refer to Japan’s oldest known culture – the Jōmon people. This period is one of the oldest dated pottery traditions in the world, with pottery not being used in the Middle East or North Africa until several thousand years later. The flame pot in this display is around 5000 years old, the same period as Stonehenge, and takes its name from the elaborate flame-like protrusions around the rim. The rims and mouths of these pots held special importance for the Jōmon, as they would have been the focal point for the family gathered around the hearth. The crown pot appears rigid in comparison to the fluid form of the flame pot. These contrasting styles seem to be important in Jōmon culture and can be seen in the arrangement of buildings and burials.

Another reason why these objects are so unique is that other cultures only created created ceramic vessels only after they had made the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer, as it was difficult to carry pottery and live a nomadic lifestyle. However, the Jōmon lived in semi-settled villages and lived in particularly food-rich environments. Indeed, new scientific research has enabled experts to analyse the remains of foodstuffs from inside Jōmon pots and have identified many different varieties of food, such as acorns (which were toxic unless cooked) as well as shellfish and meat.

The display will reveal the enduring fascination for these vessels by looking at their impact since the nineteenth century on regional identity in Japan and on the Japanese imagination, through manga, art, music and poetry. The display will also feature flute music by Yamagami Susumu, who will also be performing at the Museum at a special event on the 7th December.

To mark this unique collaboration between the British Museum and Niigata Prefecture, another flame pot is currently on display in the Ancient Japan section of the BM’s display Japan from prehistory to the present, in the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries (Rooms 92-94). The pot dates to 3,000 BCE and is from the Dōdaira site, Tsunan city, Niigata. This is the first time that a Japanese flame pot has been sent overseas on long term loan.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

 Earthenware flame pot. Japan, c. 3000 BC. Nagaoka Municipal Science Museum, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

Earthenware flame pot. Japan, c. 3000 BC. Nagaoka Municipal Science Museum, Niigata Prefecture, Japan.

Notes to editors

Opening hours 10.00-17.30 Saturday to Thursday, 10.00-20.30 Fridays. The exhibition runs between 4 October 2012 – 20 January 2013

The Asahi Shimbun Displays are a series of regularly changing displays which look at objects in new or different ways. Sometimes the display highlights a well-known item, sometimes it surprises the audience with extraordinary items from times and cultures that may not be very familiar. This is also an opportunity for the Museum to learn how it can improve its larger exhibitions and permanent gallery displays. These displays have been made possible by the generous sponsorship of The Asahi Shimbun Company, who are long standing supporters of the British Museum. With a circulation of about 8 million for the morning edition alone, The Asahi Shimbun is the most prestigious newspaper in Japan. The company also publishes magazines and books, and provides a substantial information service on the Internet. The Asahi Shimbun Company has a century long tradition of staging exhibitions in Japan of art, culture and history from around the world.

Jōmon-inspired music from Aomori Japan

7 December 2012, 6.30pm
£5/£3 concessions

The Jōmon, Japan’s oldest known culture, are the inspiration behind Yamagami Susumu’s ethereal music, which he performs on a shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) and a tsugaru shamisen (three-stringed instrument. He will be joined by Professors Taniguchi Yasuhiro and David Hughes, experts on Jōmon culture, archaeology and traditional Japanese music. The Room 3 display, Flame and water pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan will be open so you can explore the ceramic tradition of this ancient people.

Ritual and revelry: the art of drinking in Asia

27 September 2012 – 6 January 2013
Free, Room 91

Discover the importance of water, alcohol and tea across Asia over hundreds of years. From tea drinking in 12th century China to Indian water rituals in the Ganges that still take place today, the exhibition reveals the fascinating stories behind this shared human experience.

The exhibition contains striking vessels, some of which have never been on display, as well as beautiful paintings and images. This is a rare opportunity to see objects from across Asia in one display.


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