Many thousands of years ago, our earliest ancestors were nomadic tribes that survived by foraging the wild for food and shelter. During the Neolithic era, human groups first began to settle down permanently, establishing villages and communities. However, without new technological innovations, this sedentary culture would not have been possible. Foremost among these discoveries were agriculture and tool-making, both of which enabled humans to transform their natural environment into a sustainable society. Many thousands of years ago, the area presently covered by modern China was made up of distinct regions each with their own unique cultural identity. Archaeologists have been able to discern some of these cultures from each other based upon the burial styles, architecture, and pottery, perhaps the most immediate remnant of this age.
When Neolithic mankind began to settle in areas further removed from sources of water, transportation of this vital fluid became a foremost necessity. After unsuccessful attempts to create water resistant vessel from wicker baskets caked in mud, pottery was invented. The creation of pottery in China dates back as early as 6000 B.C. when villagers first realized that the earth around fires became hard and impervious to liquid. From this realization came the birth of pottery, fulfilling the practical necessity of water transportation and allowing civilization to expand. While pottery was created to answer a need, it soon progressed to be more than functional: it was also beautiful. While Neolithic vessels would have been used to carry water or to store grains, they are also spectacular artistic creations. The forms of the vessels, built up from coiled clay, are elegant and refined.
The generic name for the Neolithic culture that created these vessels is Yangshao (3000-1500 B.C.). They are thought to have been the first to harvest silk from the silkworm, initiating a tradition the Chinese are still famous for today. While few specifics are known about the Yangshao culture, information gathered from archaeological excavations of tombs and tribal villages has provided a rudimentary vision of life in prehistoric China. Furthermore, the geometric paintings that decorate Neolithic vessels represent some of the earliest evidence of the origins and evolution of calligraphic writing in China. While these designs are purely abstract and in no way constitute a written language, the patterns, motifs, and application of paint all serve to give us insight into the intellectual and aesthetic atmosphere that would eventually foster the creation of Chinese symbols.
The decoration of this vessel is rather simplistic. The short neck has been embellished by a serrated motif painted in black. Concentric rings mark the interior of the rim. Two lug handles connect the rim of the lip to the join of the neck and shoulder and would have facilitated the transportation of goods once contained within. The handles have been adorned as well with a series of horizontal black lines. The majority of the body has been covered in paint while the lower portion remains unfinished (a characteristic of the Neolithic style). A thick band wraps around the shoulders. Save for a motif of large “X” shapes rendered in reserve, the band is almost solid black. This pattern is only interrupted in the spaces underneath the handle where a black hourglass-shaped form stands out against two reserve triangles. Although this vessel was originally created t
o serve a practical purpose, today it is appreciated as a gorgeous work of art, treasured both for its beauty and history alike.