Origin and Development of Prehistoric Kiln Technology in Fujian
Narrator: Huang Yunming (Associate Researcher, Institute of the Cultural Relics and Archaeology at the Fujian Museum)
Fujian ceramics occupy an important position in the history of Chinese ceramic culture, and its ceramic-making technology has undergone a long history of development. Professional pottery kilns had appeared since the Neolithic era. During the development process, their kiln structure underwent important changes, which provided the technical foundation for the emergence of proto-porcelain in the Western Zhou Dynasty and the firing of mature porcelain in later days. The Hulushan site in northern Fujian shows us the evolution history of kiln technology before the production of mature porcelain.
Among the archaeological excavations of the Hulushan site, the most striking part is the discovery of the remains of pottery kilns of the late Neolithic period and the pottery kilns of the Xia and Shang dynasties, which provided important information for exploration into the evolution and development of pottery making technology and kiln technology in northern Fujian.
Two late-Neolithic period pottery kilns (Y1 and Y2) have been discovered in the Hulushan site. Among them, the Y1 kiln, a semi-subterranean kiln, was well preserved and consists of a kiln chamber, a fire tunnel, and a firebox. It is known through age dating that it dated back to about 5,000 years ago, and it has become a rare physical material for us to explore the development of the pottery industry in Fujian and even the southeast of China.
The 23 sites of pottery kilns of the Xia and Shang Dynasties excavated in the Hulushan site in the 1990s, one of which (Y3) was more than 5 meters long, were the
earliest pottery kiln cluster with the largest number and sizes of kilns discovered in Fujian at that time. They are of great significance for understanding the pottery making, especially for the black slip-coated pottery making and for studying the origin of the dragon kiln during the Xia and Shang Dynasties.
Compared with the late Neolithic period, the potteries produced in this period, in addition to the rich variety of utensils, have made great progress in terms of firing level compared to the previous generation. These hard potteries, with dense and hard textures, low water absorption, and the sound of musical instruments when knocked, account for more than one-third of the potteries discovered. The most distinctive feature of the sintered products is the decorative style of the black or ochre slip coated on their surface. Some scholars believe that the emergence of such slip-coated hard potteries and stamped hard potteries is closely related to the appearance of the dragon kiln technology.
Hulushan witnessed the densely distributed 23 pottery kilns of this period, which even appeared in clusters, and reflected the huge scale of the pottery handicraft industry and the division of labor at that time. Considering the discovery of kiln clusters of the Xia and Shang Dynasties in Mao’er Hill in Pucheng in 2005, it can be arguably said that a number of pottery production centers already came into being in the northern Fujian area during this period.
It is noteworthy that in the Hulushan site, the black slip on the surface of a small number of potteries has evolved into a brown glass crystal layer, and some also have ice cracking and peeling, which is basically equivalent to the brown glaze in later generations. Some scholars believe that such slip-coating has transformed into an early period glaze with a high content of iron oxide, which should be the origin of early Chinese porcelain glaze.
The Hulushan stratum has a continuous and clear composition, and the structures of the pottery kilns follow the same line, which completely reveals the complete process of pottery making technology from its primitive state to maturity, and lays a technical foundation for the emergence of proto-porcelain after the Western Zhou Dynasty. At the same time, the kilns of the Xia and Shang Dynasties were densely distributed and great in numbers, which also reflected the strong demand for such pottery products at that time.
According to our research, the black slip-coated pottery products fired by the Hulushan pottery kilns during this period were not only popular in northern Fujian, but also widely distributed in neighboring southern Zhejiang and northeastern Jiangxi. Archaeological studies in recent years have also shown that this type of pottery also radiated to the lower Minjiang River and even coastal island areas and they are even found in the Maqiao Culture in the Lake Tai area, which is further away in terms of space. It shows that, from the perspective of archaeological culture, northern Fujian exerted a strong influence on the surrounding regions during this period under the support of advanced pottery-making technology.
The thousand-year-long kiln fire burned from 5,000 years ago to 3,500 years ago, and from the late Neolithic era when people led a primitive form of life to the Bronze Age with a developed civilization, transformed the bland mud into potteries with many forms and different uses through the magical hands of the ancient people in Hulushan Hill with the help of the pottery firing technologies passed down from
generation to generation. In the years of precipitation and exploration of technology and craftsmanship, Hulushan site witnessed the development and evolution history of pottery to porcelain, i.e. from soft potteries to stamped hard potteries with rich local characteristics of Fujian, and then from stamped hard potteries to the primitive celadon ware prevalent in Wu and Yue Area.
In the process of exploring and excavating the cultural value of the Hulushan site, it is the joint responsibility of archaeologists and governments at all levels to continuously improve the protection level of the site. When the Hulushan site was discovered in the early 1990s, the site was rated as a Wuyishan monument protected at the municipal level. With the continuous emergence of new archaeological achievements in recent years, the Fujian Provincial People's Government officially announced the Hulushan site as a monument protected at the provincial level in 2018.
The Hulushan site is the epitome of half of the prehistoric pottery development history in northern Fujian. By taking the protection of the Hulushan site as an opportunity, efforts shall be made to retain the historical memory of the development of the prehistoric kiln industry, share the achievements of cultural heritage protection with the public, and work together to promote the new chapter of monument protection and utilization.