We visit a potter in the Longquan region who specialises in the dark bodied celadon wares of antiquity, but not guan ware. However, he has been and still is a great fossicker and has the most amazing collection of authentic old Chinese shards that I have ever been lucky enough to sit and handle. It’s like being invited into the back room of a museum by the curator and allowed to see all the little gems that never make their way out in the glass cases.
A lot of these shards look to me to have been excavated from out of river beds or streams. Many of them appear to have been water ground on the edges. I see this exact quality on my pots after I have tumbled them in the ball mill to ‘age’ them.
It’s the white impregnated crackle of the crazing lines that give it away, and the soft matted surface, also the rounded edges on some pieces. It all fits. I saw pieces like this in the museum collection in Malaysia. They have a whole section of pots of Chinese origin that were recovered from ship wrecks off their coast, by archaeologists, in recent decades.
Pots that were packed inside other larger pots were left with their glazes largely intact, but pots that were spread out from the cargo hold and scattered around on the sea bed in the sand, were completely relieved of most of their glaze surface except in the crevices around the foot ring. I saw one pot that was only half exposed because it was retained inside something else. The exposed surface was cleared of its glaze, just as if it had been sand blasted.
This private Longquan collection also had a lot of shards that had split, shattered, and for want of a better word ‘delaminated’. That is, the pot had been split down the centre of the clay body, more or less evenly between both layers of glaze, when the thick coating of glaze on each side of the pot exerted massive pressure on the glassy body from each side. The glassy nature of this dense, vitreous, proto-porcelanous clay body was forced to seperate, or shatter, down the centre into two parts. I suffer this exact problem in my work occasionally.
The problem shows itself, if or when, I apply the rock glaze celadon glaze too thickly over the body. The problem isn’t apparent immediately, but only shows itself after firing, as the difference in the coefficients of expansion and contraction is expressed differently in body and glaze on cooling. At around 230 oC the exotic ‘cristobalite’ form of silica, that is often created in the clay body at high temperatures, undergoes a beta-alpha phase change and shrinks 2 or 3%. This sudden shrinkage at such a low temperature exerts such tremendous pressure on the body-glaze interface, that something has to give and sometimes the pot shatters into pieces. However, in this specific case, the glaze shrinks more than the body and the glaze tears the brittle body asunder.
There is a dramatic variation of this problem that occurs when the glaze is applied to the raw clay pot when it is bone dry. If the pot is glazed on both side simultaneously, the water based glaze entering the pores of the clay is drawn in by capillary attraction. This forces air in towards the centre of the body of the pot. There is such a build up of pressure that the pot can explode with a quite loud ‘POP’! A piece sometimes flies off, or at other times a coin shaped disc flings open, left hanging, with a slight hinge on one side, allowing the air pressure to escape. It really shocked me the first time this happened to me, when I was a student at art school, as I was still holding the pot in my hand, having just lifted it out of the glaze bucket. The solution is to glaze only one side of the pot, let it dry and then glaze the other side. Thus allowing the air to escape harmlessly each time, out from the other side of the surface.
Guan ware on the other hand, has more or less the same glaze, applied even thicker on occasions, but the shattering problem is avoided in this traditional ware because the body is porous and friable. The porosity of the clay allows the cracks that form due to the glaze cooling stresses to dissipate into the porous cavities and terminate quickly without passing straight through the body, as they do in vitrified and glassy porcelaneous clays.
There is such a lot of chemistry and physics to be learnt in making ceramics! I was at the Royal Society meeting last month and heard the speaker tell the audience that in science, there is only ‘physics’ and everything else is ‘stamp collecting’ or applied physics. A mathematician claimed that there is only ‘Pure’ mathematics and physics and chemistry is just applied maths. It seemed to me that there was some agreement that biology was stamp collecting — except from the biologists. Perhaps psychologists could claim that without ‘mind’, there can be no maths?
Anyway, what would I know, I’m just a stamp collector! A stamp collector who applies chemistry, maths and physics in a creative way to ceramics. I also apply stamps to my pots to identify them as mine.
The potter who had collected all the shards, had a big new concrete double story workshop. He was the leading student of the best student of a very important local potter in this region. Sort of 3rd generation celadon maker. I got the impression that the property that he workshop was built on was his parents land. Whoever’s land it was, it has a beautiful tea plantation covering it. The new workshop has a full wall of glass looking out onto the rows of tea.
A view to die for. So beautiful! I wouldn’t mind a view like that when I’m throwing pots.
We get to spend a day in the Longquan Celadon Museum. I am travelling with my friends Len Smith and Robert Linigan. I am very interested in these old Celadon pots, particularly from my point of view of the inspiration that I can gain from the best pieces and equally importantly from what i can learn from the shards and broken sections. There is so much to glean from being able to see inside the clay body and looking at the interface between the body/glaze layers.
I love these rich and sensuous fatty celadons, guans and ‘ru’-like glazes. These are some of my favourite pots. It’s not too surprising that I like to try my hand a making glazes with this kind of influence. I wish that I could make something as good as this. It’s a quest.
In particular, I am keen to make my clay bodies and glazes as authentically as possible, by digging up all my own minerals, rocks and stones, then mixing them with ashes from my fireplace, where I burn the wood from my own forrest. It’s a complete commitment to my philosophy of self-reliance, not just in ceramics, but in my life. This coupled with a keen interest in the soft delicate beauty of ceramics the way I envision it. Not just the look, but also the feel of the surface. Equally important to me is the tactile impression -‘feel’ and balance of the pot in my hands, as well as how it will function when I eat or drink out of it.
My favourite coffee bowl at the moment, for my morning bowl of coffee, is a small white tenmoku bowl that is very translucent and very white, made from one of the Chinese sericite bodies that I have experimented with. It gives me a lot of pleasure just seeing it and handling it, even before I drink the coffee from it. It is beautifully balanced, only slightly weighted to the lower half for stability. It looks and feels gorgeous. I’m particularly fond of the slightly out-turned rim that is an essential quality of the tenmoku form. I’ve been using it for a year now and I’m still not bored with it.
Some of the unique qualities that I find I really engage with, are all its ‘faults’ – if that is what they are. I prefer to think of them as being part of its unique character. You can’t buy this bowl from Aldi on special for $2. Their white bowls may look superficially similar, but this pot has a story embedded in it that is only very slowly revealed over time as you get to know it.
For instance, because I’m not a very good potter, I don’t go to all the trouble of trying to make things perfect. Simply because I realised long ago that perfection only exists in the mind of the beholder, therefore can never be achieved, so why bother. Better to make things with character. This bowl for instance has a slightly mottled surface to the glaze, it has a very gentle undulation where the very thin clay body saturated during dipping and the glaze didn’t adhere perfectly. I have come to love this slight quirk of its appearance more than the very smooth glazed surfaces that I can sometimes make. This is a special part of this pots own history of its making.
Another point of interest for me is the hint of the remainder of the clay slurry on my hands left embedded in the surface of the clay after I finished throwing the pot on the wheel. I left it there as a reminder of the touch of my fingers. It is almost imperceptible, but it remains. I wasn’t aware of it presence initially, but it slowly became apparent to me as I got to use it, handle it and wash it up often. Not all my pots have this effect left in them, sometimes I wipe the inner surface clean with a fine textured sponge. At other times, I turn the inside of the pot with a trimming tool when I turn the foot. It all depends on how I am feeling about the pot as I make it. I never quite know how I am going to feel about what I make on the day. So its a surprise to me to be reunited with my own pots, post firing, and to re-discover their special qualities.
I can just see this swipe of my fingers in the image above. You won’t find that in a pressure cast or jigger-jollied bowl from IKEA.
This bowl also has a single iron spot in the glaze, just below the rim. It’s a bit like a beauty spot. I didn’t put it there, but I’m OK with it. This is a real object of beauty and interest. It isn’t perfect. It’s just gorgeous. It also shows my two stamp impressions. One is my initials, the other is the workshop stamp.
Finally there is the total lack of an obvious foot ring until you turn the bowl over and look underneath. I hid the foot recess inside the bowl form to minimise the weight, so as to keep this delicate bowl as light as is possible, but still have an elevated form that lifts it up off the table in a continuous elegant curved line. This is not true tenmoku form, but I think the it is better on this pot.
In the Longquan Museum we saw a lot of shards with loads chipped edges, shattered rims and broken bases. I loved this part of the display. It was all real. Many of the perfect examples had long ago been taken away to other larger collections, as this is only a smaller regional Museum. What was left in this Museum were all the other pots. I learnt a lot form looking inside the shards to see the very same qualities, problems and faults that I get in my work, using very similar materials and and almost identical techniques.
What I found particularly reassuring was that I am not alone. Someone else, 800 years ago also went through all these technical trials and difficulties to arrive in a similar place. Ultimately, there is the reward of the occasional lovely piece that survives.
This bowl is lovely, but what others probably don’t see, but I did, was what, at first glance, appears to the an incised line inside the bowl. That is easy to see, but it is in fact not an incised line, but a remnant of its making that appeared in the kiln during firing and wasn’t there when it was packed in the setting. It was formed in the fire. That wavy line is the raw glaze surface drying out and cracking slightly. The crack then doesn’t completely heal over when the glaze surface melts, but remains as a line in the glass. Perfectly fused, but hinting at its life before it became ceramic. I get it often in my glazed surfaces. It used to annoy the hell out of me, as there was no way that I could see to prevent it happening, if you fire long and low to make that particular satiny surface, it’s just what sometimes happens. If you fire hot, it disappears in the fluid melt at top temperature. This ‘scar’ is a relic of its process and making. I now look on these healed over cracks as an authentic product of the unique process that I indulge in.
Nothing is perfect. Nothing lasts. Nothing is ever finished, and that includes learning.
I used a wooden framed, foot operated, treadle, potter wheel. It’s a very old ‘Leach style’ potters kick wheel. Designed by Bernard Leach, way back, early in the last century. That’s almost a hundred years ago, coming up sometime soon. This actual wheel was handmade in Australia under licence sometime in the 1970s. That makes it almost 50 years old.
When I started to learn about hand made pottery in 1969 I bought a 2nd hand ‘Leach’ kick wheel to get me started. I loved it so much, that I have used them ever since. I have tried other pottery wheels, but keep on coming back to this energy efficient, human powered potters wheel. Tragically that first wheel was lost in one of the two fires that have devastated our pottery workshops over the 50 years of my career as a potter.
The other day I was throwing a large pot of 3 kgs of clay. Not so big compared to what other younger potters can throw on an electric powered potters wheel. But about as big as I like to go on this old wooden treadle wheel. Well, I was pushing hard to get the mass of clay onto the centre, when ‘CRACK’ ! That was the end of my throwing session. I had busted the leather bearing that connects the foot treadle bar to the steel crank shaft. It was reminiscent of peddling your bike when the chain suddenly comes off the derailleur gears. Everything sins free and there is no response to the effort of peddling.
Now it just so happens that only last weekend I was at a ‘Lost Trades’ weekend market and exhibition and my good friend Warren, the guy who can do anything. Warren decided to buy a hand made leather belt. But his plastic card wouldn’t work on the ancient, lost trade, candle powered, banking machine that was available on the site, so I lent him some money to pay in old fashioned cash. The Lost Trades traders still have the ability to take cash! That is a skill that isn’t lost!
I asked the leather worker if I could have the excess leather from the very long blank belt was was being custom fitted to my friend. I got 300 mm of leather belt material. The leather worker, who I knew, knows that I am a potter, and I have bought my belts from him in the past. He asked me what I wanted the leather for. I told him about my very old potters wheel and its antiquated leather bearing. How amazing that the very same piece of leather bearing would snap just a week later. I am so lucky!
So I had to stop work and do a running repair. I was prepared. In less than an hour I was up and running again. I bought this potters wheel 2nd hand, after the last fire in 1983. The old leather strap had lasted 36 years! Not too bad for a thin leather strap.
I’m wondering how long this new one will last? I only used half of the piece of leather for the repair, so I still have another piece in reserve for 2055.
I’ll be over a hundred years old by then, so it probably won’t be my problem.
Well, this is a bit of a sad tale. I have unpacked my latest kiln firing, only to find that 2 of my very expensive Japanese Silicon carbide kiln shelves had snapped during the firing and collapsed onto the work below.
Not a pretty sight.
Even though we lost 3 shelves worth of pots crushed or stuck together. There were still some very nice pieces to keep our spirits up.
The bottom shelf was OK.
Despite the disaster, there were still a lot of lovely pots that came out.
The collapse seems to have diverted the flame path a little, causing some parts of the setting to get hotter than usual. This resulted in some over-firing and running of the glazes.
When the pale celadon glaze runs, it forms a very nice emerald green pool in the bottom of the pots. I really like the whiteness of the sericite body, contrasting with the emerald green pool and the pale hazey grey of the carbon inclusion on the rim.
I get out my quality control hammer and start to process some of the sub-prime pieces. They go into the ball mill, where they are polished for a few hours. When they come out, they are used as hand made celadon porcelain gravel ‘jewels’ for the driveway and paths.
This is one of the over-fired bowls below. The glaze has started to run, but it is still really beautiful. The runs have a build up of fine white ash glaze crystals. The pot has remained startlingly white, even with the wood ash attack. The glaze stopped just short of sticking to to the kiln shelf. What I find amazing, is that the sericite is so translucent at this higher temperature, that I can not only see light through it, but I can see the runs of glaze on the out side of the pot from the inside!
This doesn’t happen very often. It also has a beautiful, intense, emerald-green pool of celadon inside the base.
Its a really unique piece. You can even see the pink colour of my little finger holding the base of the pot on the other side, underneath. That is translucency! I’ll probably show it at Kerrie Lowe Gallery in November/December, in her Xmas exhibition.
I have kept one really translucent, but damaged bowl on the window sill in front of my wheel for inspiration. It’s ruined, the rim was destroyed when the kiln shelf on top fell on it and it is warped out of shape from the pyro-plastic deformation at the high temperature of 1300oC. Luckily, I was able to prize it off the bottom of the kiln shelf in one piece. It is so white and translucent, it’s an inspiration to me to see what is possible with this special ground up rock style of clay body called sericite.
I try not to think of the hours I spent working on it, turning and trimming it over several days, in various sessions, until I got it down to an even 2mm thick to get this result.
I have just completed my first firing since I returned from China a month ago. I did a solar powered electric kiln bisque firing a couple of weeks ago and now this stoneware wood firing. I started very early at 4.00 am, simply because that is when I woke up. I usually do wake early on the day I’m due to fire the wood kiln. It’s somehow worked it’s way into my psyche. If I start early, it gives me plenty of time to get the firing done in one day.
I also really like the predawn time. It’s very quiet here. Mind you it’s always very quiet here most of the time, as we are one kilometre outside of a small village, with no shops or real activity much. We do have a road that runs right past our door, but there isn’t a lot of traffic along it. Our peak hour sees 20 cars and one bus go past. However, at 4 am there is no traffic, not even bird call. That comes later at dawn.
Dawn brings the silhouette of the huge pines that tower over our little school house building. The dawn chorus is beautiful, the firing is well under way and the front row of pots is illuminated by the flames.
I fire very discretely. By choosing to use a down draught fire box design kiln, I am able to fire without making very much smoke at all. If every thing goes according to plan, there is only the faintest pale grey haze during the reduction cycle of the firing, when most kilns make enormous quantities of smoke.
I spent the day before hand, preparing and stacking all the wood for the firing. I’m trying mostly casuarina for this firing. I haven’t had enough of it at any one time to try it out for a full firing before. It wasn’t a very nice experience. I found that it produced quite a buildup of charcoal in the ash pit. I had to open all the mouse holes to get enough air into the base of the firebox to keep it under control. I won’t be using it again as the sole fuel source. I don’t have anything against charcoal. Actually, I really like it to build up to a certain level, as this creates beautiful surfaces on my fired work, but I need to be able to keep the level under control. Otherwise, It can build up to the point that it blocks up the firebox. Luckily, I had taken the precaution of also preparing some old very dry stringy bark and a bit of pine as well. That got me out of trouble.
This was a very good precautionary move. I always prepare more wood than I think that I will need. I nearly always have a fall back position, a plan ‘B’ as it were. It’s just the way I am. Perhaps just a little aspy? I even recommend doing just exactly this in my book on wood firing called ‘Laid Back Wood Firing’. Good to see that I even take my own advice!
Janine has picked fresh artichokes from the garden for lunch. She has steamed them and prepared a warm seasoned olive oil dipping sauce, with salt, pepper, garlic and chilli. It’s pretty yummy. She has thoughtfully prepared the dipping sauce in a twin-bowl bain-marie of hot water to keep the sauce hot on its 100 metre trip down from the house to the kiln shed, and throughout the meal.
We peel off the leaves one by one and pull them between our teeth to collect the fleshy, flavoursome pulp. It’s a great reward for our efforts to be able to eat gourmet food like this at virtually no cost. For us though, it’s not gourmet food, it’s ancient peasant food. Home grown, home cooked, consumed on site, within minutes of its picking, in its season, just as it should be. A meal like this has very low embedded energy and is SO delicious.
While the kiln is firing, you can’t even tell that the kiln is alight for most of the time. I get to sit and write or do odd jobs, some cleaning up. It takes about 20 minutes in-between stokes, sometimes 40 mins, or even up to one hour when I stoke in a large piece of heavy hardwood. There is very little to do for a lot of the time.
I repaired an old kitchen chair that was given to us by the son of an ex-pupil of the school, That is pretty amazing when you consider that the school was built in 1893 and closed in the 1920’s. Jan Riphausen gave us his Mothers chair after she died and he was cleaning out her house. It has two broken spindles, but he thought that I might be the only person that he knew that might value old junk like this. Jan’s mother had lived almost next door to us here in the ‘Green Gate’ Farm, just down the road. The chair is quite ordinary, and was missing a couple of spindles. I repaired it with hazel water-shoots from our orchard. Not the most usual way to repair a chair, but a chair like this has no value these days except for the sentimental value it carries. I use it as my firing chair.
I like it a lot, because it is made with craftsmanship, from real wood. Therefore I can repair it, again with craftsmanship, using real wood. In this case, wood that I grew myself. The new spindles are not like the originals, they are quite uneven and ‘natural’. I love it for this very reason. Because it now has a very special personality. linked to us through the medium of the Old School building that is our home, but also because I have added myself into it now. A little bit of sabi-wabi. It’s like repairing a chipped, but beautiful pottery bowl with gold inlay. Kintsugi style. I have developed my own ‘kintsugi-like’ way of repairing my favourite pots. It’s not the ‘pure’ traditional Japanese technique. It’s my own way. It’s the way that I can do it using what I have around me. I’m not Japanese, but I can appreciate their culture. I really treasure being able to take something that everyone else would throw out, and spend a little bit of time and effort on it, and turn it into something very special, with real value. At least to me, and that is all that matters. I might hazard a guess that this chair must be pushing on for 100 years old. I can’t imagine any piece of Ikea, melamine-coated, woodpulp and glue, furniture being treasured like this in another 100 years. This is my life, reflecting all of the choices that I have made along the way, attempting to live a gentle, green, passive, life of minimal consumption. An existence based on creative endeavour.
So I’m sitting on my special ‘enhanced’ firing chair, contemplating the firing, listening, smelling, sensing the process. I play some music, I write, I even talk to the chickens when they come in to visit, and they come in often throughout the day.
I get up every now and then and look into the firebox through the air inlet holes in the lid, Only then can I see the wood burning inside. If it needs it, I open the lid and drop in a few more logs. That’s it. It’s a simple process.
When the wood has burned down and the charcoal drops into the ash pit, I stoke it up and fill it with new logs. The bottom logs slowly burn away and the logs on top drop down to replace them, until it is time to stoke again. In this way the firebox is partially self-stoking.
This firing has gone very well, and after 12 and a half hours, when I look into the kiln through the spy hole, cone 10 has melted and this indicates to me that the full temperature has been reached. It is now time to sit and wait for the wood to burn away, so that I can slowly close down the firing and allow it to cool for two days. I celebrate with a glass of chilled white wine and a bowl full of freshly picked broad beans. This is a special springtime treat that I learnt to enjoy in Italy.
It is only now that it is all over, that it is clearly apparent that the kiln is actually alight, simply because I have opened all of the air inlet holes. 14 hours well spent, with still plenty of time to spare, just in case I might have needed it.
Because we choose to fire alone, we have developed a firing schedule that we can fit into one day. An early start, sometime around 4am, to 6 am. When ever I wake up. I don’t require an alarm. This allows up to an 18 or even a 20 hour firing without missing a nights sleep. 14 to 15 hours is just right. We have chosen not to do the longer types of firings that require more people to be involved and organising and changing of shifts throughout the night.
This is meant to be a simple life, rich in experiences with just enough rewards for our efforts to make it worthwhile.
I am reminded that, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect and nothing is ever finished.
While in the Longquan traditional celadon region researching celadon, we took some time out to visit a former celadon factory, that was forced to close when the economy was modernised. It has now re-opened as a celadon museum/cultural park.
I found it a bit shallow and lacking in depth. That is to say what was there didn’t grab me. It may be of interest to the more general tourist, but there wasn’t enough there to speak to me, as I’m interested in the more intricate details and technical information/insights that could be included, but weren’t.
However, there was an old wood fired tunnel kiln that had been restored. This kiln was the main means of firing the celadons here right up until 1998. One can understand why it went broke and couldn’t compete with more modern factories with up to date facilities and equipment.
There was also an clay processing section that used the old fashioned water-driven, wooden clay hammers, that is a technology that dates back 1000 years. It was exactly fitted with the age of the kiln technology, So out of date for a factory setting, it is hard to believe that it managed to last right up until the 1990’s.
Clearly, this equipment hasn’t been used for many years, possibly since 1998? Just like the kiln.
All the pots produced in the wood fired tunnel kiln, were packed in saggers to protect the ware from the fly ash from the wood fuel, which is so important when making a subtle glaze like celadon.
It is interesting to see that sometime between 60 and 20 or so years ago, they wrapped some parts of the wooden roof frame with ceramic fibre to stop it singeing or charring during firing.
The saggers that were used in the kiln firings are these days used as retaining walls and breeze way walls.
We take the bullet train out of Shanghai for the three and a half hours trip heading South West. We arrive at Lishui station and wait for a cab. There isn’t much at the station and the crowd that we arrived with soon disperse, but are soon replaced with another hoard of people from the next train. They all swirl past us, coming through in waves every 10 mins. There are just so many bullet trains passing through here with astounding regularly. It’s hard to believe. This is a very popular service. It must be on the way to somewhere more important, because this place isn’t anywhere in particular, that I’m aware of. But with 1.4 billion people needing to get around, even if only a small fraction of them live and work around here, it is keeping this service very well patronised. 10 years ago there were very few of these super-fast trains in China. 20 years ago there were none.
These days you can get to near almost anywhere quickly using this service, but mostly on the eastern side of the country. The government has produced a miracle in building this high speed rail system so extensively and quickly. Half of it is bored through the mountains in tunnels and the other half is suspended on concrete pillars above the valleys. It’s a masterpiece of engineering and it appears to run like clockwork. We comment on how Australia takes 5 years to make a 3 km road tunnel across Sydney. While the Chinese are building 3km of high speed rail infrastructure per day here.
Here in Lishui, we are about an hours car journey from our destination, as we wait for our car to pick us up. We try the local station food. This is just OK, not what I would usually want to eat, but I’m in a foreign country, so it goes down a treat.Anyway, there is only one choice. It’s a bowl of monosodium glutamate clear soup, with some fried tofu skin, 2 very small dumplings, a couple of dreadfully, scarily, luminously, bright pink ‘sausage’. I use that descriptor very loosely, and this is brought to life with some really great, bright red, slices of HOT, I mean very hot, chilli. A few drops of oil, some pepper and a lot of salt. It’s fantastic! I love it, but I try not to think about what was in the bright pink, extruded, sausage-like objects. I’ll never know. But when in Lishui, eat like a Lishuan! It was delishuious.
Our car arrives and drives at a little bit scary high speed to get us to our hotel for the night. We settle in and have a dinner of stirred vegetables. Soya beans and onion, mushrooms, fried tofu, steamed and then stir fried green beans, something brown that I don’t recognise, either in shape or in taste, which is quite bland and finally some little, green, mild chilis. something more akin to a small capsicum. It’s all delicious. but there is a lot of it, so I pass on the steamed rice and the soup.
The next day we are off to see the local Longquan Museum of celadon history. Longquan was a centre for the production of Celadon wares for several hundred years, from about the mid 900’s, through to almost 1600 – and it still is an important producer of high quality ceramic Art wares based around celadon.
Apart from Celadon, they also have some Guan ware and something that looks suspiciously like Ru ware, but can’t be, because Ru ware was only made in the Northern Song Dynasty. We’ve been tipped off, we have some local information, about an important new archaeological site. We spend our time dutifully taking in as much as we can in the Museum. But more importantly for me, there is the recently excavated archaeological site. I want to get some understanding of the early celadon manufacturing in these surrounding valleys. I have my pet theories, the possibility of seeing this site takes preference for me over other possible things to see and do while we are here.
The site is a half hour drive out into the country side. We wind our way out into the hills away from the fertile valleys. This is all very familiar to me. Even though I have never been here before. It is the same story. I can see it all unfolding. It has the ‘look’ that I recognise. These fertile valleys were colonised for food production first and pottery came later. The potters had to make do with the hilly surrounds where food production wasn’t a premium.
This is the same story or scene in so many other places where I have been researching in China, Japan and Korea. It also just happens that there are useful minerals to be found exposed in the wash-away edges of the streams up in the hills. This liminal country is very rich in feldspathic material I can see that from the car window. I’ve seen it all before. I call out to stop the car at one point. I say “We must be getting close now”! I can see out of my window, that we are passing a deposit of kaolinised porcelain stone. This is the local geology writ large in the road cutting. I recognise it from all the other deposits that I have studied over my lifetime of fossicking for porcelain stone and glaze rocks.
If this is the local geology, of course someone would have been inquisitive enough at some point in time over the very long history of human occupation of these vallieys, to just pop a bit of that paler stuff into the existing pottery kiln where they were making earthenware and then later, stoneware, until finally they made porcelain. But it was only because the ‘stuff’ was here and available on site. No sericite and kaolin, no discovery of porcelain. It’s that simple.
The story is much the same where ever it happened in several different sites in a few different countries. If the suitable material was there, exposed near the surface, then it happened. If you are a potter, or several generations of potters. You can’t not make it!
We drive on, eventually reaching the dig site. All digging has now been completed and written up. There is a sign that tells all – but it is mostly in Chinese script and I can only decipher a bit of it using my phones translation app. But this is of little or no consequence, as the signage has a small section of English translation. How very thoughtful! Anyway, I’ve been in this situation before, and I know what I’m looking for and what I’m looking at in the most general sense. I can see what I need to see. As we wander the site for an hour, even making our way down to the small runnel of a stream at the bottom of the hill. There are even a few bits of broken shards in the water, all ground and polished into rounded edges of pale green celadon and off-white/grey-olive, guan-like glazes.
The story board tells us that along this stream was once a well-worn track along the banks that is mentioned in old documents. The finished ceramic work was carried out of this valley along here. We make our way back up to the kiln site. It’s a long tunnel kiln – or was. Only the base is left now. This site dates from 1000 to 1300. There are several layers of occupation/development on the site. The kiln has been partially excavated to reveal at least 3 layers of different kilns on the site over time. This site is called “Fengdongyan” and is 4.5 kms up stream from the small village of Daoyao. Daoyao village is where there would have been other potteries at that time. This higher and more remote pottery site was an ‘official’ government sponsored site. So it must have been important. Or so the info board tells me.
To extend my earlier proposition of the thesis that potters migrated up into suitable nearby valleys, Actually, I believe that they were pushed out by the farmers. I propose that the potters were originally farmers, who grew crops and made pots part time. Pots made from mineral rich clays from the valley floor. Something akin to red earthenware, fired in bonfires, or simple up-draught kilns made from mud, straw and shards. Over eons of time the space on the fertile valley floor became too precious for pottery making and firing. The potters who had by now become specialists, were relocated off the fertile valley floor and the now well developed paddy fields and their sophisticated watering systems.
The potters now finding themselves on higher sloping ground, built their up-draught kilns into the sides of the slopes, becoming more like cross-draught kilns. This resulted in them achieving higher temperatures much quicker and with ease. The clays that they were close to on the slopes and valleys were better drained with certain fluxing minerals leached out. The clays became less fuseable, lower in iron and more refractory, needing the higher temperatures that were now possible, so paler stoneware bodies were evolved. etc, etc. Eventually semi cross-draught, down-draught tunnel kilns were developed because of their greater fuel efficiency and ease of achieving the higher temperatures. The rest is history!
When sites with porcelain stone were located nearby, in these valleys, it is impossible for me not too believe that someone like me, an inquisitive potter, could have resisted trying out this new white material. It needed a bit more work to get the kiln to mature it, it needed to go in the hottest spot, but it was possible, and therefore, at some point in time, it happened. The same porcelain stone body used for making the pots, could be mixed with limestone or wood ash and this now became a proto-celadon glaze that could be raw glazed, it’s that easy! It could be done, so it was done, it’s still being done! You only need 2 materials. Later, saggers were developed/employed to maximise packing and firing efficiency, but also to keep a lot of the wood ash off the beautifully refined glazes. Of course it didn’t happen over night, it took centuries. So much experimentation by generations of potters, each adding just a little refinement to the overall knowledge. That’s my thesis. I believe it. What is missing here is a clay supply. Why, this place so far up the valley?
When we were finished looking at this early Long Quan celadon site, we made our way back up the hill to the road, and on the other side of the road was a short track, that I hadn’t noticed previously, this led to an ancient mine site of very friable, crumbly weathered porcelain stone material. So this is why these potters migrated up here, 4.5 kilometres up this valley, away from the village, into this more remote spot, between 600 to 900 years ago. Now it’s obvious to me. They came here, all this way, simply because this is where the best material was to be found in its easiest, most workable form. No crushing required, just washing/blungeing, settling and stiffening. It all makes perfect sense to me. I’m dying to step off the walkway and go in and steal a little sample for analysis, but I resist the temptation. I’d put money on this stuff being a mix of sericite and silica, perhaps with a small amount of kaolinite or something similar. But I’ll never know!
In a way, I don’t need to. I already know. It’s just like every other site in a general sense. This place would fit very well into my book of ‘5 Stones’, except that I’ve already finished writing it. Every one of the 11 sites I studied in the 5 different countries, all fitted the pattern in some way, and every sample that I collected and and had analysed, with only one exception, contained sericite mica! That exception is Mittagong, where I live, where the mineralogy is similar but the mica is in the form of illite not sericite.
The mine site is quite extensive, it goes in two directions. I might imagine that they simply followed the softest, most plastic, easily dug material. I can see 300 years of potters endeavour, scratching out this hole here. It all makes so much sense to me.
I’m feeling really chuffed. This has been a really rewarding day. Even if nothing else happens on this trip. It has already been completely worthwhile for me.