Monday, 12 June 2017

Mysteries of the Yellow Earth

This cleverly designed jar could be a well used piece of twentieth century studio pottery, but it is in fact a Neolithic Chinese pot from c. 3000 BC, and is now in the Museum of Far Eastern Arts in Stockholm.


Storage jar, MFEA, Stockholm

This one has a similar dynamic curvilinear design, but is more obviously ancient.


 
Burial jar from Gansu Province, China   c. 2600-2300 BC.  © V&A Museum 

These Stone age Chinese pots caused a sensation when they were discovered in 1921 from ancient settlement sites in Yang Shao province, as they had been lost for thousands of years, neither seen nor recorded in China's long history.  They included both burial urns and storage jars and bowls.

It was geologist-turned-archeologist Johann Gunnar Andersson, who discovered several similar sites along the Yellow River Valley in Gansu province and at Yang Shao in 1921, and recorded the first recognised evidence of Neolithic culture in China.

These pots were made before the potter's wheel was in use - a straw mat was probably used to help turn the pot around as more clay coils were added; some pots show the weave impress on the base.  The pots were beaten and smoothed with rib bones and paddles, and after drying, the fine loess clay surface was decorated with earth pigments, iron black and manganese purple, before firing. The early brushes were probably just a bamboo stem frayed.  Others were painted after firing, and the decorated surface was carefully burnished with a bone or pebble to preserve it.*

Yangshao neolithic earthenware pot, Banpo Museum 


Andersson was a Swedish geologist, who had visited the Antarctic as a member of the Swedish expedition  (collecting fossils of plants) in 1901-03.  The loss of their ship the Antarctic meant Andersson was in one of the small groups completely isolated on different islands through the long winter with small odds of rescue in the spring.  China must have seemed very different when in 1914 he was employed by the Chinese government's geological survey to advise on coal and oil resources.

Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874-1960) in China, 1920
© Swedish East Asian Museum


Intrigued by a strange piece of quartz and tales of dragon-bones, when he first excavated their source at Zhoukoudian not far from Beijing, he correctly predicted that fossils of early man - homo erectus - would also be discovered in that region. Soon fossil teeth sent back to Uppsala were identified as human, and eventually announced to the world as Peking Man in 1926, when the Swedish Crown Prince visited China.  So from fossil hunter Andersson turned full-time archaeologist, and with all his Yang-Shao discoveries he became Director of Stockholm's  Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, and more of these striking painted burial urns later made their way into other European collections.


Painted pottery funerary urn, Yang Shao, c. 3000 BC MFEA Stockholm

A further major discovery (again a result of economic enterprise) was made in 1952 near Xi'an, when a site was being excavated for a new factory.  This site is now known as Banpo, after its team of diggers, and an extensive settlement was revealed with as many as six pottery kilns.  The Banpo pots clearly show the early animal and fish paintings from which the striking abstract geometric patterns were developed.

Fish decorated bowl   Banpo Museum China

Abstract patterns derived from fish decorations   Photo M. Reuterdahl 


Abstract patterned bowl, c. 3200-2650 BC. Gansu area  Metropolitan Museum, New York

The Banpo major archeological site is now a very busy tourist destination, with its museum opened in 1958.

But the story is incomplete.  Many of the Yang Shao ceramics, buried unknown for so many millennia before Andersson's excavations,  were then lost again after barely a quarter of a century.  Andersson returned very many of his finds (which had been studied in Sweden and were held in the Stockholm Museum), to China where they were last seen in 1937,  although some were still listed in 1948 in the Nanjing Museum guidebook.    Some  surviving pieces of those returned by Andersson were found  forgotten in storage in 2012, but many of these miraculous objects from prehistory which he brought to the light of day are still lost without trace.

And see China Heritage Quarterly; Archeologybulletin.org; China Before China, Magnus Fiskesjo & Chen Xingcan, 2004.

*Reference books give different accounts regarding whether the painting was done before or after firing, but as the excavated pots were being made over a very long time period, I assume there would have been differences in the materials and techniques and firing kilns at the various sites.

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