Tripod vessel, white earthenware, Shandong Province, China, ca.2500 BC.
Height: 26.0 cm, Width: 16.5 cm
World Ceramics, room 145
Ewer with three feet
China, Shandong province
About 2500 bc
This early ewer was made from the same kaolin-rich clay as porcelain. But at this date high-temperature porcelain kilns had not been invented. The clay was therefore fired below 1050ºC and has remained a porous earthenware. Kaolin is more resistant to heat than other clays. This fact, together with the ewer’s distinctive shape, suggests that it was placed over a fire for boiling water.
Museum no. FE.8-2000
Purchased with funds from Mr T.T. Tsui [September 2009]
The great importance of this piece is that it is made from kaolin-rich clays, the same raw material used for porcelain, and had it been fired to a higher temperature it could be described as porcellaneous or as 'proto-porcelain'. However, the firing range of Neolithic kilns seldom exceeded 1,050°C, which means that the ewer was fired at much the same temperature as Neolithic earthenwares, and the body has remained porous rather than become vitrified during firing.
The common raw material for Neolithic Chinese ceramics is loess, a wind-borne dust derived from igneous rocks (rocks formed from molten magma or lava), not kaolin-rich clays. This is because in northern China the latter was usually found beneath the loess and hence was more difficult to obtain. Kaolin clays were deposited earlier than loess: some 260 million years old, they were laid down when huge carboniferous forests flourished in north China. The mud on which these forests grew was of kaolin-rich sediments, washed by the rain from distant rocky highlands.
Made 1,000 years before writing was invented in China, there is no textual source to explain the function of this distinctive vessel. Its form, with three bag-shaped legs, strap handle and spout, suggests it was a ewer in which water was boiled. The use of kaolin cays by the aboriginal potter could have been sheer coincidence, or it may have been deliberate, as the material had a superior resistance to the thermal shock that occurred, for example, when liquids were heated over a fire.