Ancient pottery epitome of original culture in Tibet


The exhibition hall of pre-historic culture in the Tibet Museum displays exhibits from stoneware of the Paleolithic Age to bronze and cliff paintings of the early Metal Age, which is a vivid epitome of the developing history of pre-historic human culture in Tibet.

Archaeologists have demonstrated that the distribution of Neolithic Age pottery in China covers the whole country, but especially in five major areas Yellow River Valley, Yangtze River Valley, southeast China, southwest China and north China. The area in southwest China includes Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan. In respect of current archaeological findings, at the end of the Neolithic Age in Tibet ancient pottery culture had developed rapidly to some scale and level.

The total ruins of Neolithic Age that were discovered in Tibet include the ruins of Karub, Lesser Enda and Gyangqen in Qamdo, the Qugung Ruins in Lhasa, Qamgo Gully and Bamgar ruins in Shannan, etc. Among them, the ruins of Karub are the earliest Neolithic Age remains so far found in Tibet. Most of the pottery displayed in the Tibet Museum was unearthed from Karub and the Qugung Ruins, followed by pottery unearthed from Gunggar Qamgo Gully. The pottery unearthed from the ruins of Karub and the Qugung Ruins is on a large scale in respect of both quantity and quality, and their shape, patterns and lines possess the typical characteristics of ceramic craftsmanship in the early times on the plateau.

The ruins of Karub have a history of 4,300-5,300 years, and among some of the unearthed 20,000 pottery shards, 1,234 pieces can be recognized. The pottery unearthed from the Qugung Ruins can be traced back some 4,000 years ago at earliest and to Tubo period at the latest. The wares include pots, earthen bowls, cups, bowls, plates, etc., and most of them are pots that occupy 68 percent of the total recognizable pottery. The shape of all wares is vivid and varied, and they are mainly vessels.

The ruins of Karub and the Qugung Ruins basically exemplify ceramics craftsmanship at the end of the Tibetan pre-historic period. Following is the brief introduction on these two ruins in regard to the making crafts of pottery.

Shaping Technology

The pottery wares in the ruins of Karub were all shaped by hand. Some small wares might be kneaded into shape by hand, and the large wares were shaped by means of earth strips to winding construct and earth pieces to paste up. The pursuit of practicability of pottery in the earliest times gradually transformed to the pursuit of artistic effect in shape.

The pottery in the Qugung Ruins are hand-shaped; most of them were made of earth strips to winding construct, and some small ones were kneaded to shape directly by hand. The working procedure is comparatively complex. After being shaped, the pottery would be jointed with an opening and bottom, and feet and ears were stuck on.

Trimming Technology

The pottery trimming technology of the ruins of Karub illustrates the slow-wheel trimming craftsmanship, but it is far behind the wheel trimming technology of ceramics of the Qugung Ruins. The surface of the pottery was polished many times, but it was not very smooth.

Compared with the ruins of Karub, residents of the Qugung Ruins had a more advanced ceramics technology. Slow-wheel technology was adopted in trimming most pottery, and they managed to not only process the surface of bases, but also make a rough surface to serve as shading after polishing, so that the remaining smooth surface creates a simple but elegant design. These patterns of technology are rarely seen in pre-historic pottery patterns in China, and are an artistic creation particularly owned by the Qugung people and special contribution of the Tibetan ancestors.


The pottery adornments of the ruins of Karub gave priority to cut lines, including circles, single and double curving lines, parallel lines, rhombus lines and connected curves. The line adornments are abundant in different patterns. Line adornments are all on the upper half of pottery, and it can be presumed that, in those days, when people placed pottery directly on ground they could only see the upper half. The pottery wares are in gray, red, yellow and black, and the gray and the red ones predominate.

The pottery adornments of the Qugung Ruins are abundant including dots, slanting lines, inverted V lines, V lines, parallel lines, circles, rhombus lines and tooth lines. These lines were cut or pressed, molded or grounded. In regard to the surface of pottery unearthed from the Qugung Ruins, pottery pots made of earth and made with find sand are polished the brightest. Both the opening of the pots and the interiors are polished. Black pottery ware occupies the largest portion and is the most exquisite. In addition, as these kinds of pots had experienced cementite processing in firing, their surfaces are very bright with blackening.


In regard to the pottery unearthed from the ruins of Karub, in firing, the duration and degree of heating was not enough and they were not heated evenly, so that the surface color was not uniform with some mottling. It can be presumed that, at that time, there was no pottery kiln, and people just fired pottery in the open air. Most pottery wares still have smoke marks and they might have been used as a cooker.

The pottery pots unearthed from the Qugung Ruins were fired with high-temperature heating, and in firing they had experienced cementite processing when the temperature was about 600-650 degrees. The pottery color changed with the cementite temperature.

Ware Shapes

The pottery unearthed from the ruins of Karub is very simple. The ware shapes are only different with the upper or lower position of the largest diameter of their bellies. The typical characteristic in manufacturing is that a circle of earth strips was added to the largest diameter in the belly on the surface, and lines were adorned and pressed on this. The pottery mainly includes pots, basins and bowls. They all have flat bottoms and were mainly used as vessels.

Archeological study shows that, on some pottery wares in Qamdo, there are marks of repairing. On the edge of cracks in the wares, holes for repairing can be seen, and some are on the edge of the bottom, which implies that the bottom of such wares often fell off because of an ability to bear any weight at that time. These repair marks help verify the importance of pottery in daily life and people’s cherished care of pottery at that time. Among the pottery unearthed from the ruins of Karub, there is a "double-body pottery pot" that is also called as "double-connected pottery pot with carved lines". It is 18.7CM high and 29.2CM wide. Its opening diameter is 11CM and its bottom diameter is 8CM. This pot was made of yellow pottery with fine sand. It is in shape of double-body and connected opening. The opening is round and the edge turns outward. The two bellies are in an elliptical shape; a short button was stuck to the outside on each side, and the bottom is flat. The neck was carved with double curving lines; one belly was carved with double inverted V lines, and the other belly was carved with rhombus lines. Black pottery was painted as adornment in spaces between lines, so it is also called as pottery red and black colorful painted double-body pot. The shape is special, the line adornments are neat, and it implies the special aesthetic interests of its creator. It is a significant highlight among pre-historic cultural relics. Some people think its shape seems like two animals standing face to face, and a pair of buttons with a hole on the shoulder seems like the tails of the animals.

Qugung pottery shows further development than the pottery unearthed from Karub in manufacturing technology, and its technology and skills are more mature. Simultaneously it epitomizes the developing character of the art ideology of the pre-historic people on the plateau.

The abundant shapes of Qugung pottery imply a peak in the pottery development history on the plateau. The ceramics craftsmanship of polishing was adopted on thin bases. The shape of the wares is beautiful and line adornments are exquisite, which represents a very high level of skill and has significant district characteristics.

Among them the typical ones include "black pottery sing-ear flat-bottom pot"(17.5CM in height, 8.6CM in opening diameter, and 16.5CM in largest diameter), which represents the summit of pottery development in later period of the Neolithic Age in Tibet on the plateau; and "black pottery high-feet single-ear cup" (11.5CM in height and 12.4CM in opening diameter), etc.

In the exhibition hall of pre-historical culture in the Tibet Museum are also displayed various implements for making line adornments on the surface of pottery. On bone and stone wool combing objects were carved various geometrical designs.

The Karub culture possesses a strong regional coloring. Besides pottery, other production implements also epitomize the character of the Neolithic Age, and stoneware comprises forged stoneware, fine stoneware and polished stoneware at the same time. In regard to construction, there are different construction relics including houses, stoves, round table-boards, roads, stone wall, round stone stage, wall pen, ash pit, etc. Their construction level and technology have reached some degree of refinement, especially for residential constructions of troglodytic style and semi-troglodytic style, which had great impact on the architectural technology and future development of original culture in Tibetan areas.

The Qugung Ruins are located in the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River and represent a group of well-developed pre-historic culture in hinterland area on the plateau. The shapes of their wares have profound impact on culture of later times from the Yarlung tribe to the Tubo period. In the Tubo period, the pottery shapes drew on the shapes of Qugung pottery, but tended to be simplified and eliminated many unique and elegant shapes of the latter.

The pottery ware unearthed from Karub and the Qugung Ruins both involve religious effects. As the birthplace of various original religious doctrines such as the Bon religion in Tibetan areas, many relics on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau are endowed with strong religious coloring. Some pottery segments were painted in red and some pottery was used to carry paint. In the pre-historic period red was viewed as a symbol of life and strength, which represents the Tibetan ancestors’ veneration of life.

The appearance of pottery is a significant symbol of human’s entrance into the "Neolithic Age" from the "Paleolithic Age". China is one of the countries that took the lead in inventing pottery in the world. Pottery made great indelible contribution to the development of world’s history, culture, art and technology. It is the bright crystallization of labor, wisdom and experience in pre-historical ancestors’ struggle for life with nature. It can also be said that the developing history of Tibet ancient pottery is an indirect and visual developing history of pre-historic Tibet.