Seeing and Knowing: Prehistoric Ceramics in East Asia

Seeing and Knowing: Prehistoric Ceramics in East Asia. Abstract
Robert Poor
Seeing and Knowing: Prehistoric Ceramics in East Asia.
Robert Poor, University of Minnesota.
What little can be known of the prehistoric culture of China and Japan is derived from an
examination of its surviving objects. It is from these once humble things, the pots and
pans recovered from ancient kitchens or the more ceremonial wares found in their graves
that we can evince humankind’s sense of beauty. However, these cultural relics are not
passive oracles. They subtly shape our inquiry into the ancient past as we sift through the
available evidence to determine what can, and what cannot be deduced from the chance
spoils of collecting, or more recently, controlled excavation.
In the natural quest for some broader historical narrative there is a danger that the objects
themselves become transparent, relegated to the role of mute source material. The unique
form of a pot may be recognized only as a typological marker in some developmental
scheme and its ingeniously painted design taken just as evidence of the antiquity of some
myth that promises confirmation of a cherished belief in cultural continuity. The
seductive appeal of these grand schemes may prejudice the selection of evidence yielding
an abstract typology that tells a tale of half-truths. Or, as the recent exponential growth of
archaeology in China, Korea and Japan readily demonstrates, we may simply leap to
judgments that are quickly rendered obsolete. The object may lay stranded between the
valid need for some broader sense of historical development and the contending demand
for the recognition of an ever-expanding corpus of archaeological matter.
We cannot hear the songs of ancient times, admire the fashions of their costumes or
retrace the steps of ancient dances. But we can learn too see what has survived the
millennia. The object whether in the museum case, dealer’s showroom or on the
collector’s shelf, awaits our informed consideration. Seeing, active seeing, informed
seeing comes first; understanding of the full esthetic and cultural dimension will follow.