Jar (Hu)

Painted spirals recall the crests of waves on this 4,500-year-old jar.

Jar (Hu), c. 2650–2350 B.C.E. (Neolithic China, Banshan phase), earthenware with painted decoration, 34 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Cortney Chaffin and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the galleries devoted to the art of ancient China. We’re looking at an object that is about 4,500 years old. It is this beautiful jar.

Dr. Cortney Chaffin: [0:15] The jar has a round foot and it widens from the foot towards two lug handles that are situated at the waist of the vessel and then continues to widen in the narrow end towards a tall, round neck.

Dr. Zucker: [0:33] The ceramics are so beautifully crafted that at first glance, I would assume that this was made on [a] wheel because it is so perfectly round and the transitions of the shape are so smooth and so regular. But in fact, this was not made on a wheel. This is made using a coil method, where snakes of clay are rolled together. They’re stacked, they’re smoothed, and so this object is hand-built.

Dr. Chaffin: [0:57] The vessel is painted from the waist up. Below the waist, the vessel is bare. From the waist up, we have a running spiral design.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] It is this complex set of parallel lines that are wave-like, that turn and spiral in on themselves, creating almost a cresting wave.

Dr. Chaffin: [1:19] This running spiral motif is characteristic of the Banshan culture in northwest China during the Neolithic period, around the third millennium B.C.E. This design motif is what we call a universal motif because we see it on objects across time and space, such as dōtaku bells that date from the third century B.C.E. in Japan.

Dr. Zucker: [1:47] The clarity and care that is exhibited in the laying down of these lines of both the black and the red against this buff-colored clay is astounding. Clearly, we’re looking at the work of somebody who has mastered this technique, of somebody who has produced hundreds, perhaps thousands of vessels like this.

Dr. Chaffin: [2:08] The red color is derived from iron, while the black color is derived from manganese. This use of two colors begins during the Banshan phase in the northwest during the Neolithic. Before this time, pots were only painted with one color.

Dr. Zucker: [2:27] It’s interesting to note that the painted pots have all been found in the context of a tomb, whereas we have thousands of examples of Banshan vessels outside of the tomb complex. It seems that the painted vessels were made specifically to help support the afterlife.

Dr. Chaffin: [2:44] These vessels were filled with grain to provide food for the tomb occupant in the afterlife.

Dr. Zucker: [2:52] We know nothing about the religious practices of these people. This is a preliterate moment in China, that is, there’s no written language. So what we have as evidence are the objects themselves and the contexts in which they were found.

Dr. Chaffin: [3:05] In China, we don’t see writing until around 1200 B.C.E.

Dr. Zucker: [3:10] But because we’re art historians, we’re always looking for connections. It is very tempting to look at the design here and to see its elegance and its perfection, a result of the use of a brush, as a precursor to the importance of calligraphy in later Chinese art.

Dr. Chaffin: [3:27] The way that the crests rise up and come to a point remind me of literati ink painting, where one pulls the brush up to a point.

Dr. Zucker: [3:38] Whoever the artist was understood the diameter of the pot in relationship to an extraordinary degree. This is a very sophisticated handling of this volumetric canvas, of the surface of this pot.

Dr. Chaffin: [3:50] It’s striking to think about the amount of design thinking that went into planning out this running spiral design, evenly placed across the vessel.

Dr. Zucker: [4:01] It is astonishing that given the age of this pot, it exists in this case at the Metropolitan Museum intact.

Dr. Chaffin: [4:07] I imagine this was excavated from a tomb that was discovered completely intact.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] This pot is a time machine, bringing us back 4,500 years to a Neolithic community.

[4:19] [music]

This work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Neolithic Period in China on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Denise Patry Leidy, How to Read Chinese Ceramics (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015).

Cite this page as: Dr. Cortney E. Chaffin and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jar (Hu)," in Smarthistory, June 12, 2023, accessed June 12, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jar-hu/.