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Turning Dust into Glory

Ancient Chinese craftsmen created exquisite black ceramics with sophisticated manufacturing techniques that are still hard to reproduce

By Du Guodong , Zhang Yue Updated Jun.1

A 22.6 cm-tall eggshell black pottery cup discovered at Longshan Cultural Site, Rizhao, Shandong Province. The artifact has a slender stem, a perforated lower bulb, a long handle and a flower-like cup on top

In the recent Palace Museum exhibition “The Making of Zhongguo – Origins, Developments and Achievements of Chinese Civilization” in Beijing there is an exquisite but less noticeable item – an eggshell black pottery cup from Longshan.  

Longshan refers to the late-Neolithic Longshan culture, which dates from 4,600 to 4,000 years ago, around the time the five mythical Chinese emperors were said to have lived. It was during this period that the culture of the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, represented by the Longshan culture, became the center of the prehistoric Chinese civilization while cultures in other regions declined. This region served as China’s political, economic and cultural centers for thousands of years.  

Polished black pottery is the trademark pottery ware of the Longshan culture, which differs from the previous colored pottery of the Neolithic Yangshao culture (5,000-3,000 BCE). It has also lent its name – Black Pottery Culture – as an alternative to Longshan as an identifier. The eggshell pottery items they produced are exquisite, dark and bright in appearance, with slender stems and handles. The pottery is highly polished and thin-walled, like an eggshell. 
Black eggshell pottery cups with long handles were first unearthed from Longshan Cultural Site in the city of Rizhao, Shandong Province in 1975. These goblets are kept in Shandong Provincial Museum.  

The exhibit on display at the Palace Museum from January 26 to May 4 is 16.9 centimeters in height, 12 centimeters around the rim, and 5.9 centimeters in inner diameter. The cup and the handle were made separately before they were fused together. Many other items of eggshell pottery have a closed bulb middle section with several perforated holes or slits.  

Eggshell black pottery cups in different shapes have been discovered, suggesting they are not from a single batch. An extremely rare item is one that is 22.6 centimeters in height, with a deep stem cup and wide flared rim. The long slender handle sits below the cup, which looks like a flower bud. There is a ceramic “pill” inside the body and if the cup is shaken, a light crisp sound is heard. When the cup is placed on a table, the pill falls in place to keep the cup stable. The cup is the pinnacle of eggshell pottery and one of the most precious treasures of Shandong Provincial Museum.  

Historically, pottery vessels distinguish agricultural from nomadic cultures. 

Discovery Story 
In the spring of 1928, famed archaeologist Wu Jinding happened upon a settlement of ancient Chinese people on a riverbank near Longshan Town in Shandong Province during an archaeological survey. It was the site of Chengziya culture – the original excavation site of the Longshan culture. While excavating Chengziya, Wu found pottery fragments that were light and thin but hard as porcelain.  

The fragments were measured to be no thicker than 0.2 millimeters. The average thickness of an eggshell is 0.5 millimeters, the size of a syringe needle opening. The thinnest part of the black pottery cup is only 0.2 millimeters, which is more than half as thin as an eggshell. As a result, it was given a new name – black eggshell pottery, which later simply became eggshell pottery.  

In its simplest form, pottery is clay formed into shapes and fired. The formula did not change for millennia. Silt and water to make the clay are easy to get. But a chemical reaction takes place during the process. It can be argued that pottery is the earliest use of chemistry and a milestone for human society as it transitioned from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic age. Pottery is an example of ancient wisdom that turned dust into glory.  

The earliest known pottery product in the world is a roughly 11 centimeter-tall statue of a naked woman found in the Czech Republic which dates from 29,000 to 25,000 years ago. In China, pottery pieces were unearthed from Xianrendong Cave, or the “Immortal’s Cave” in Chinese, at the foot of Mount Xiaohe, in Wannian County, Jiangxi Province about 20,000 years ago. The fragments are loose and rustic, lacking the firm texture and sheen of ceramics. They look like rough pottery pieces, perhaps part of broken vessels or pots.  

Fragments of a ceramic cooking pot were also found at Yuchanyan, an early Neolithic cave site in Dao County, Hunan Province dating back 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. It is worth noting that the earliest archaeological discovery of rice in China was also found at Yuchanyan, and it is reasonable to speculate that the appearance of ceramics as a practical vessel was connected with another significant achievement of human civilization – the agricultural revolution.  

After crops were cultivated, ancient people gradually settled on a plot of land. Settlements need pots and jars because grains like millet and rice must be stored and cooked. Storage vessels became increasingly sophisticated. As carrying pots and jars was inconvenient for nomads, pottery utensils varied between farming civilizations and nomadic civilizations.  

The agricultural revolution of early humans took place between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, an era 5,000 to 6,000 years prior to the appearance of eggshell pottery. In the early Chinese prehistoric culture, practicality drove the development of pottery. For example, early ceramic kettles have a round bottom because it was much more difficult to produce a flat one. To remedy the problem, people dug pits to place them in so they would sit flat on the ground. Ancient people would also make a triangle of three stones and put the ceramic kettle or cooking vessel on top.  

In the archaeological sites of the early Neolithic, there are many combinations of three stones grouped together that create primitive stoves. It was, however, not always convenient to find three similar stones, so they invented pottery brackets with three legs to cook with. Such an instrument was unearthed at the Wu’anci Mountain site in Hebei Province. 

A black eggshell pottery cup on display at the Palace Museum between January 26 to May 4

Evolution of Craftsmanship 
When Wu Jinding washed away the dirt from his find, shards of shiny black pottery appeared before the eyes of the archaeologists. One of them excitedly recorded their characteristics: “Black as paint, lustrous as a mirror, thin as paper and hard as porcelain.”  

Producing black eggshell pottery is an extremely delicate process. First, repeated rinsing filters impurities of fine silt in rivers and lakes to make the ware durable. Then the vessel has to be thrown on a fastspinning wheel, which requires great precision and stability since the thin walls will easily break. Finally, it is fired in a high-temperature kiln with precise timing and great craftsmanship, taking care not to shatter it.  

During firing, water is added to the kiln until it produces a large amount of smoke. The charcoal particles adhere to the surface of the ceramics and penetrate its porous texture, giving it its characteristic black color.  

Nowadays, many workshops in Longshan Town in Shandong churn out modern reproductions. Even though they have access to modern technologies and facilities, they cannot match the sheen of the pottery produced thousands of years ago, nor can they reach the technical level of the Longshan culture.  

It is obvious that black eggshell pottery cups were intended as gifts rather than practical utensils, because liquid flows out through the perforations in the middle of the cup.  

It is reasonable to speculate that these cups were precious ornaments in the home of an aristocrat, or artifacts used in religious rituals to worship ancestors and petition for heaven’s blessings. The black eggshell pottery cups developed from the previous rustic pottery ware found in Xianrendong Cave, taking about 16,000 years to transform from roughness to magnificence.  

Over that time, improvements in production, the appearance of surplus products, social stratification, the rise of different social classes and the emergence of cultural and ritual activities turned Chinese pottery from practical vessels to ritual objects and gifts. The complex social evolutions in East Asia created the demand for items such as eggshell black pottery cups, which trailblazed the art and technology of pottery making.  

Researchers discovered that black eggshell pottery cups were mainly found in areas around the modern cities of Weifang, Linyi, Zibo and Qingdao in Shandong Province. In December 2021, an exquisite eggshell pottery cup dating back about 4,300 years was unearthed in the city of Xiangyang, Hubei Province. The well-preserved cup has a fine and hard texture, similar to the black goblet. Its sides are extremely thin, and most parts of the cup are less than 1 millimeter thick. This is the most recent example of a black eggshell pottery cup to be found outside Shandong, and hints that discoveries and stories are awaiting archaeologists.

Pictured is a pot unearthed from Yuchanyan Cave, Dao County, Hunan Province