The Jomon period did not have settled agriculture such as cereal production; essentially the economy did not transcend hunting and gathering. But the Jomon people made full use of the bounties of nature and did what they could to expand their sources of food, including learning how to cook various wild plants to make them more palatable. Seeking a more stable existence, they lived communally and conducted village festivals.
Various theories have been advanced concerning the function of the dogu. Since they are often found broken and dismembered when excavated, one theory holds that at least in early times they were used as katashiro, substitutes to rid people of injuries or illness by a process of transference, and then destroyed. The large number of dogu representing pregnant women has lead other scholars to suggest that these figurines were used as talismans to ensure safe childbirth. At present, as more of these figurines have been discovered discarded with other festival implements or as burial goods, it is believed that they were probably used at festivals and other rituals to represent fertility goddesses who brought about the eternal renewal of nature, reflecting the concept of regeneration of people in the Jomon period.
Dogu had developed in tandem with Jomon-era society, and thus, with the transition to the Yayoi period (ca. 300 BC–AD 300), which brought the cultivation of rice and other grains and the use of bronze, iron, and other metal implements to Japan from the Asian mainland and saw the development of a society centred around settled agriculture, these figurines rapidly disappeared. This very disappearance is probably a major clue in our efforts to understand their function and use.
This particular dogu belongs to a grouping of similar figurines that have been labeled shakoki-dogu (goggle-eyed ceramic figurines) that developed about 2800 years ago during the Final Jomon Period in the northern Tohoku region of Japan’s main island of Honshu, in what are now Aomori and Iwate Prefectures. This naming derives from the resemblance of the large eyes on these figurines to sun goggles that historically have been used by the hunting tribes and peoples of the north. The rendering of the large eyes, the characteristic “Y” shape of the eyebrows, and the patterns on the torso of this figurine all mark it as a classic of this type.
The technique used in its production was the stacking of thin coils of clay to build up a form with a hollow centre; if still intact, the entire figure would have been quite large—perhaps more than 40 cm tall. The central motifs on the figure are rendered in an unusual style typical of this period—surikeshi jomon, or “erased cord-marking.” In this technique, a thin cord or rope is rolled over the surface, leaving an overall pattern formed by its strands. A sharpened horn or bit of bone is then used to incise lines demarcating areas from which the cord pattern is then rubbed off to leave a smooth contrasting surface. The smooth portions have all been carefully burnished, giving them a high luster which has lasted down to the present. The basic tonality of the ground is black, but this is not a glaze; it is the result of a firing method in which oxygen was cut off in the final stages of an open-air firing. Traces of colcothar red are faintly visible over the entire figurine.
The overall impression given by the image is one of a beautifully plump, almost Rubenesque, female form with sloping shoulders unusual in dogu of this period. The ample, somewhat swollen breasts give the figure a maternal strength. It is also the shape of the mouth that gives this piece its unique personality. In many other dogu of this period, the mouth is commonly stylized into a simple circle or oval, but here the lips have a life to them suggesting the figure is speaking to us.
Several other features add to the historical value of this particular figurine: the hourglass-shaped earring suspended from the right earlobe, which has been preserved undamaged, as well as the two parallel vertical lines descending each cheek from below the eyes, which probably represent the tattooing believed to be customary in that era.
Although the lower half of this figure is missing, for reasons touched on earlier, it can still be considered a superb example of the shakoki-dogu that stand as representative works of Japan’s Jomon period.
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