Understanding Ancient Chinese Vessels

Jun 29, 2016

Storage Jar with Painted Bichrome Decor and Burnished Surface, Neolithic period, Majiayao culture, Banshan phase, 2650–2300 BCE. Earthenware. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Gift of Mrs. John Dane, 1941, 41–61–60/7161, 99320164, TL41522.9.

Rarely seen prehistoric Chinese ceramic objects are now receiving plenty of attention as part of Prehistoric Pottery from Northwest China, an exhibition currently on view in the Harvard Art Museums’ University Study Gallery. Comprised of about 60 objects, the exhibition complements a course taught by Rowan Flad, the John E. Hudson Professor of Archaeology at Harvard University.

Ling-yu Hung, the An Wang Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and assistant professor of anthropology at Indiana University in Bloomington, organized the exhibition with Flad. As part of her fellowship at Harvard, Hung has conducted new scientific analysis of many prehistoric pottery objects in the collections of the Harvard Art Museums and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (about 10 objects from the Peabody are included in Prehistoric Pottery). The research and work on Prehistoric Pottery has been “a wonderful experience of collaboration,” Hung said.

We asked Hung to tell us more about her interest in prehistoric Chinese pottery and the objects in the exhibition.

What is important about these objects?

Northwest China has yielded tens of thousands of prehistoric pots, many of which are painted. These objects are now among the most popular of Chinese cultural relics exhibited at museums worldwide. The vessels are not only works of art but are also representations of technical achievement, products of economic value, and windows into understanding ancient history and society.

How did you select the objects to include in the exhibition?

Representativeness and diversity were my priorities in the selection process. I intended for viewers to see the typical vessel types and styles of each period. For this purpose, I wanted to include examples of the most impressively beautiful objects that are often seen in museums, as well as examples that are common in archaeological contexts yet rarely seen in art exhibitions, such as small coarse jars. I selected some objects for their exceptional designs or shapes, to demonstrate the wide creativity of ancient potters.

Do you have a favorite object or set of objects?

It is difficult to choose a favorite object among this great collection. However, I was very pleased to include a Banshan jar in this exhibition. It’s a typical and exquisite example. Furthermore, images of this object appear in one of the most important textbooks of Chinese archaeology: The Archaeology of Ancient China (fourth edition), by K. C. Chang. I had the privilege to take courses with Professor Chang in college and received his encouragement to pursue further study of Chinese archaeology. It is quite meaningful for me, then, to personally see the object shown in his book.

Besides fully intact vessels, the exhibition includes a number of painted potsherds from Anau, in Turkmenistan. Why feature these?

In the early 20th century, when painted pottery was first found in China, the similarity between painted potsherds found in China, Anau, and comparable Eurasian sites raised great attention. Painted pottery of Anau was once considered evidence to support the then-popular theory of Western origins of Chinese civilization. Anau was mentioned in many early publications on the study of Chinese civilization, such as in one of J. G. Andersson’s articles, shown in this exhibition. Although there is no proof of a direct connection between Anau and ancient China thus far, Anau still represents a key chapter in the research history of Chinese civilization. The Anau examples have rarely been on view since they were unearthed.

The exhibition also includes modern reproductions of ancient pottery. What can we learn from these?

I wanted to encourage viewers to think more about how the pottery was made and how the labor was organized. The majority of prehistoric pottery found in this area is from sites where it was used and discarded, rather than from where it was created.

We have limited understanding about ancient pottery production. At modern production sites, we gain ideas about potential issues and challenges faced by ancient potters. Where did they obtain the clays, for example? What kind of pigments did they use? How did they process the clays and pigments? Did members at a production site have certain kinds of kinship relations? We can gain insight into these questions by comparing these ancient and modern contexts.

I intentionally included a modern reproduction with a firing defect in the exhibition. This example was abandoned outside a potter’s kiln and collected from that discard location. It reminds us to think about how ancient potters dealt with pots with manufacturing defects.