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Episode 10 - Jomon pot

Jomon pot (made around 5,000 BC). Clay, found in Japan

Thousands of years ago, one of our ancestors must accidentally have made their first pot. We can imagine that a lump of wet clay somehow ended up in the fire, dried out, hardened and formed a hollow shape; a shape that could hold things, in a tough material. Until now, for the Ice Age cook, leaves were soggy, baskets and skins leaked and burned, and meat charred. Suddenly, when that wet clay hardened, a whole world of culinary possibilities and ceramic design opened up.

The miraculous accident that produced pottery coincided with some great developments in human history. In the previous four programmes, I've been looking at the way humans began to rear animals and to cultivate plants. As a consequence, they started to cook differently, to eat new things and therefore to live differently - they settled down. Today, we're in Japan, about seven thousand years ago, with an ancient pot made in a tradition that goes back almost ten thousand years before that.

'The earliest dates we've got for pottery are around about 16,500 years ago, and that in itself has caused quite a fuss because this is still what most people recognise as the Old Stone Age - with people hunting big game animals. We don't really expect to find pottery quite as early as that.' (Simon Kaner)

It was in Japan that the world's first pottery was born - and with it, possibly the world's first stew.

You'll find pots in museums all around the world and in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum, we have pots from all over the world; Greek vases with heroes fighting on them, Ming bowls from China, pot-bellied African jars and beautiful Wedgwood tureens. The world's pots are so ubiquitous that we take all of them for granted, but human history is told and written in pots perhaps more than in anything else; as Robert Browning put it: 'Time's wheel runs back or stops; potter and clay endure'.

This Jomon pot is an extremely important pot. It's pretty underwhelming to look at - in fact it's quite dull. It's made of brown-grey clay, a simple round pot about the size of the bucket that children play with on the beach, about six inches high, six inches across at the top, and its got it's got straight sides and a flat base, and it was made about seven thousand years ago in Japan.

When you look more closely, you can see that it was built up with coils of clay and then, into the outside, fibres have been pressed, so that when you hold it, you feel as though you are actually holding a basket. It looks and feels like a basket in clay.

The basket - like markings on this and other Japanese pots of the same time, are in a cord pattern and that's in fact what their name is in Japanese. They are Jomon - or 'cord-pattern' pots. And the word Jomon has come to be used not just for the objects, but for the people that made them, and even the whole historic period in which they were lived. It was the Jomon people living in what is now northern Japan, who created the world's first pots. Simon Kaner, of the University of East Anglia, is a specialist in ancient Japanese culture:

'In Europe we've always assumed that people who've made pottery were farmers, and that it was only through farming that people were able to stay in one place, because they'd be able to build up a surplus that they could then subsist on through the winter months, and it was only if you were going to stay in one place all the year round, that you'd be making pottery, because it's an awkward thing to carry around with you.

'The Japanese example is really interesting, because what we have here is pottery being made by people who were not farmers, and it's one of the best examples that we've got from anywhere in the world really - from pre-history, of people who subsisted on fishing, gathering nuts and other wild resources, and hunting wild animals - that they also had a need for cooking pots.'

The Jomon way of life seems to have been pretty comfortable. They lived near the sea and they relied on fish as a main source of food, that is, a food that came to them, so they didn't have to move around as land-roaming hunter-gatherers did. They also had easy access to abundant plants with nuts and seeds, so there was no imperative to domesticate animals or to cultivate particular crops. Perhaps because of this plentiful supply of fish and food, farming took a long time to establish itself in Japan, compared to the rest of the world. Simple agriculture, in the shape of rice, arrived in Japan only two thousand five hundred years ago, but in pots, the Japanese were very much ahead of the game.

Before the discovery of the pot, people stored their food in holes in the ground or in baskets - both vulnerable to thieving creatures and, in the case of the baskets, to wear and to weather. Putting your food in sturdy clay containers that you can cover, keeps freshness in and mice out and, as for the shape and decoration of the new pots - well, having no pottery tradition to learn from, the Jomon looked at what they already had - baskets. So it's not surprising that they make pots that look like baskets, and indeed, look like each other. Professor Takashi Doi is Senior Archaeologist at the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Japan:

'For Jomon people the decorations are derived from what they saw around them in the natural world - the motifs were inspired by trees, plants, shells, animal bones. The basic patterns are applied using twisted plant fibres or twisted cords, and there is an amazing variety in the ways you can twist your cords - there is an elaborate regional and chronological sequence that we have identified. Over the years of the Jomon period we can see over four hundred local types or regional styles. You can pin down some of these styles to 25-year time slots, they were so specific with their cord markings.'

As well as making attractive and stylised storage pots, the Jomon must have been also thrilled at the leak-proof, heat-proof properties of their new kitchenware. The menu would have included vegetables and nuts, but they also cooked shellfish - oysters, cockles and clams. Meat was pot-roasted or boiled - and so Japan appears to be the birthplace of the soup and the stew. Simon Kaner again:

'We're quite lucky they weren't very good at washing up, these guys - and so they've left some carbonised remains of foodstuffs inside these pots, there are black deposits on the interior surfaces. In fact, some of the very early ones, some of those ones that are now dated to about 14,000 years ago - there's black incrustations, and its that carbonised material that has been dated - we think they were probably used for cooking up some vegetable materials? Perhaps they were cooking up fish broths? And it's possible they were cooking up nuts, using a wide range of nuts - including acorns - that you need to cook and boil for a long time before you can actually eat them.'

I think that this is a really interesting point - that pots change your diet. New foods become available and useable only once they can be boiled. Heating shellfish in water forces the shells to open, making it easier to get at the contents, but also, and no less importantly, it sorts out which ones are bad - bad ones stay closed. It's alarming to think of the trial-and-error involved in discovering which foods are in fact edible - there must have been plenty of horrible accidents along the way - but it's a process that was going on all over the world.

The Jomon hunter-gatherer way of life, enriched and transformed by the making of Jomon pottery, didn't radically change for over 14,000 years. Although the oldest pots in the world were made in Japan, the technique didn't spread from there. Pottery seems to have been invented in different places at different times right across the world. The first pots known from the Middle East and North Africa were made a few thousand years after the earliest Jomon pots, and in the Americas it was a few thousands of years after that. But almost everywhere in the world, the invention of the pot was connected with new cuisines and a more varied menu.

Nowadays Jomon pots are used as cultural ambassadors for Japan in major exhibitions around the world. Most nations look back to imperial glories or invading armies - and I think it's extraordinary that a technologically, economically powerful nation like Japan proudly places the very origins of its identity in the early hunter-gatherers. As an outsider, I find the meticulous attention to detail and the patterning of the surface, and the long continuity of Jomon traditions, already very Japanese. Professor Takashi Doi again:

'Japan has the longest pottery-making tradition in the world. The fine porcelains made by Japan's top craftsmen and women today have an inheritance lasting over 17,000 years. Jomon pots and culture have great resonance for many Japanese people today, perhaps because it speaks of the distinctive nature of Japanese culture that often stresses continuity through change.'

But the story of our small Jomon pot doesn't end here, because I haven't yet described to you what is perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all about it - that the inside is, when you look, carefully lined with lacquered gold leaf.

What's fascinating about trying to tell a history through objects is that they go on to have lives and destinies never dreamt of by those who made them - and that's certainly true of this pot. That gold leaf was applied somewhere between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, when ancient pots were being discovered, collected and displayed by Japanese scholars. And it was probably a wealthy collector a couple of hundred years ago who had the inside of the pot lacquered with a thin layer of gold. After seven thousand years of existence, our Jomon pot then began a new life - as a 'mizusashi', or water jar, for that quintessentially Japanese ritual, the Tea Ceremony.

I don't think that its maker would have minded. We know there were all sorts of rituals and ceremonies involving pots in the time of the Jomon. In that society, as in virtually all others, pots quickly went beyond their functional purpose to become objects of desire and display. In their many manifestations, pots resonate throughout human history, from the most primitive domestic meal or drink to the Last Supper; from a nomadic snack to an international banquet. If mealtimes are a microcosm of society, then pots are the very glue that binds hosts and guests, indeed the whole of society, together.

This week we've traced the beginnings of farming and settlement; in the next programmes, we're with the consequences: the world's first cities.

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