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Bottle with mouth in the shape of a mushroom

Enlarge this image. Bottle with mouth in the shape of a mushroom, 5000–3000 BCE. China; Shaanxi province. Yangshao; Banpo phase. Low-fired ceramic with painted decoration. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Hanni Forester, 1992.2.
What is this object? Where does it come from?
This is a small ceramic bottle, found as part of an excavation of an ancient site along the banks of the Yellow river in Shaanxi province in north-central China. The north-central plains have revealed remains of some of the oldest settlements in China. Being over 5,000 years old makes this bottle one of the oldest objects in the Asian Art Museum's collection.

What was it used for?

The bottle comes from a gravesite. Pottery jars and other items made of bone and stone were often buried with the dead and are the most frequent type of object to turn up in a dig of this kind. Possibly, it was used during the owner’s life, although we do not know for sure. It might have been made specifically for the person’s burial, or it could have been the one of the occupant’s favorite possessions, perhaps it carried medicine or a special drink. Its small size suggests it was for personal use, rather than for utilitarian purposes.

What was life like back then?

This bottle comes from a small village where people lived for a short time, practicing some farming mixed with hunting and gathering. The villagers had domesticated dogs and pigs. The staple food was millet grain. Simple weaving made of hemp would have been produced, and cord marks on pots suggest a lot of basketry was used. Families lived in egalitarian arrangements, without much differentiation of gender roles–meaning that the archaeological record gives little indication of one group dominating the other–and without much indication of social stratification. Housing remains suggest the villagers lived in clusters, possibly clans. Dwellings were partially sunken in the ground, with simple, raised platforms that may have been used for sitting and sleeping. Graves were found beyond the perimeter of the village. Some children were found buried in urns under the houses or within the walls of the dwellings.

How was the bottle made?

The bottle was handmade of local earthenware (a type of clay) and fired at a low temperature. The bottle has a flat base, a mushroom-shaped mouth and fans out in the middle of the body. It was painted dark red with geometric patterns around the body and neck of the bottle.

Why is this piece important?

This bottle provides direct evidence of early ‘painted pottery’ cultures–so-called because of the characteristic painting of designs on ochre-colored earthenware jars and bottles. The general group of cultures throughout central China during the early Neolithic period are called Yangshao, after the name of the original site that was found. Banpo refers to the specific phase (in time) and it is also the name of the site, which can still be seen outside the modern city of Xian. The bottle also shows how long ago, Chinese potters took an interest in forming vessels with interesting patterns on them, an early harbinger of the centuries of ceramic traditions to come.

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