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Jar, c. 2600-2300 BCE
Earthenware with painted decoration
12 3/4 x 17 inches (32.4 x 43.2 cm)
Gift of Horace H. F. Jayne, 1926
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About This Jar

This splendid large jar with its dynamic patterns and others like it are known as Banshan (bahn-shan) ware. Banshan is an area in the present-day Gansu (gahn-su) province of northwestern China, where pottery of this kind was first found. The Banshan culture arose out of several early societies that existed during the Neolithic period, before metal came into use. The people of this area were farmers, raised animals for food, and are best known for their distinctive painted pottery, which includes jars, basins, and bowls.

To make this vessel, the potter worked from the bottom, beginning with small coils of clay and adding successively larger ones as he or she moved to the waist. From there, the coils decreased in size to the neck. The coils were probably fused by hand on a slow-turning wheel to form this shape. The jar was then fired at a very high temperature, painted, and finally polished into a shiny finish. In daily use, it may have been carried with a rope strung through the pair of handles. Jars like this one have also been excavated from burial sites.

The painted pattern on the shoulder of this jar is sometimes called a running spiral, a popular design motif in several ancient world civilizations. The pair of running spirals shown here is made of several parallel, solid lines that alternate between purplish-red and black and are notched with teeth. This densely arranged pattern is perfectly proportioned for the globular shape of the jar.

What Is Clay?

Clay is a mixture of fine rock particles (decomposed granite) and water that comes from the earth. It is usually found near sources of water, like rivers or lakes. Clay comes in a variety of colors: white, buff, gray, red, brown, and black. Minerals in the soil determine the color of the clay; for example, the presence of red iron oxide produces rust-colored clay. Kaolin, the clay used to make porcelain, is very white. Quality clay has high plasticity—the ability to be molded into many shapes—and good strength. A potter works with wet clay to form and sometimes decorate a vessel. Once formed and dried in the air, the vessel is placed in a hot kiln and fired to a very high temperature. When the object in the kiln reaches 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, the clay particles change to quartz crystals, which interlock and bond, making the clay piece very strong.

Clay is classified into three distinct groups based on the temperature that is required to fire each to its appropriate hardness. Earthenware is clay that has been fired at a relatively low temperature of about 1700–2100 degrees Fahrenheit. A clay flowerpot is an example of earthenware. Earthenware is somewhat porous, allowing water to seep through it. Stoneware is clay fired at about 2100–2350 degrees Fahrenheit. Stoneware objects are harder and less easily broken than earthenware. They are nonporous. Porcelain is the hardest and finest of the three. It is fired at temperatures between 2300–2500 degrees Fahrenheit and is nonporous. Porcelain objects can be extremely thin because the clay holds its shape so well, becoming very hard when fired. Sometimes porcelain is so thin that it is translucent—one can actually see light through it.

This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: China, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.

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