Guess how many pots they have in the British Museum flame and water pots exhibition. Twenty? Twelve? No, it’s two. Two pots. The two pots in the photo above, in fact. So now you’re thinking ‘Why should I bother with that?’ Because those two pots are seriously wonderful, that’s why. And they were made in Japan five thousand years ago, when the best our prehistoric ancestors could manage was Stonehenge.
In fact the Jomon period of pot-making began long before these pots were made – some sixteen thousand years ago. In the depths of the snow country along the Shinano river on the border between Niigata and Nagano Prefectures, hunter-gatherers with a fish and nut-based diet learned to bake clay and used it to make the most fantastical cooking pots you could imagine. Take a closer look at the flame pot and its leaping decorations, like the tails of salmon leaping up-river. Who would have thought to make a pot like that?
Or what about the second pot, the crown pot with its solid spikes, quite different from the mobile fluidity of the flame pot. Apparently the people of the Jomon period had two different styles for everything they did. Why should that be?
To be fair, there are actually two and a half pots in the exhibition. Jomon means ‘cord pattern’ and refers to the decoration on the pots which was made by pressing twisted grasses onto the wet clay. You can see the pattern on this half pot, which has been converted at some time (maybe the 18th century) into a water jar for the tea ceremony with a lid and a lining of gold leaf. This pot was featured in the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. You can listen to the episode here.
And if you’re feeling really greedy, there’s another Jomon pot on show in the Japan collection in room 92.
The curators have done a good job of illustrating their little exhibition with explanatory pieces around the walls.
I was also lucky enough to hear Simon Kaner’s lecture Flame Pots: Jewels of the Jomon Shinano River which really brought the era to life. But it’s the pots themselves that fascinate. You must go and see them. It’s very easy – go in the main entrance of the museum, turn right and the pots are straight ahead of you. You don’t have to go wandering around looking for them. Five minutes and you’re done.
And if you want to know more there is a lecture on 5 December at 13:15 by Yasuhiro Taniguchi in Room 3 where the pots are, and a concert by Susumu Yamagami, the premier exponent of Jomon-inspired music, playing the shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) and tsugaru shamisen (three-stringed instrument), on 7 December at 18:30 in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre. You can book it online.
The exhibiton is supported by the Asahi Shimbun so well done them. The pots are on show until 20 January 2013 and then they’ll go back to Japan and you’ll have missed your chance. Go now. Or go at Christmas. Just go.