Reassembling the past: exploring the recent archaeology of Japanese ceramics production through creative ceramic practice

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In November-December 2015, I was ceramic artist-in-residence as part of the Seto International Ceramics and Glass Art Exchange Programme. The city of Seto is a traditional ceramics centre near Nagoya in Japan and pottery has been made there since at least the thirteenth century. The hills around Seto are dotted with some 500 Muromachi Period (c.1336-1573) kiln sites and, although the city is past its economic heyday, it remains an important centre of both industrial and craft production. In this illustrated paper, I will discuss my ongoing engagement with the site, which aims to explore the recent past of ceramics production through creative ceramic practice (see also McHugh 2017). In doing so, I hope to show how my approach to the site is mediated through an appreciation of ceramics gained as both a maker and as someone with a background in archaeology. The present is experienced as a palimpsest of the material remains of a profusion of pasts and this ‘patchwork’ (Olsen 2010, 108) of material juxtapositions is particularly evident in Seto. Decaying wood and corrugated metal buildings (sometimes still occupied) exist alongside contemporary ferro-concrete constructions, and the products and by-products of the ceramics industry both intentionally and incidentally form the fabric of the city. Obsolete saggars have been repurposed into ornamental walls, while heavy rain regularly unearths broken sherds and ceramic components in the many empty plots. My ceramic artworks echo this stratification of time and material through a process of collection, collage and (re)assemblage. These pieces incorporate photographic imagery with found ceramic objects and casts taken from reanimated plaster moulds. Although collage is often associated with the temporary and ephemeral, by firing photographs onto the ceramic surface as digital decals, I am attempting to document the site’s changing materiality in a ‘semi-durable’ (Pennell 2010, 40) medium. This process materialises digital information, making it literally ‘graspable’ (Connerton 2009, 124). While the recent history of ceramics production in Seto is often regarded as being too close to lived memory to be worthy of archaeological investigation, this is a significant, yet threatened, heritage resource. These overlooked remnants offer important insights into embodied knowledge and material histories of labour, consumption and archaeological deposition. My works aim to pay homage to and raise awareness of these silent material stories.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherIndependent Social Research Foundation
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 9 Mar 2018

Publication series

NameIndependent Social Research Foundation Bulletin
PublisherIndependent Social Research Foundation


  • Seto
  • Japan
  • ceramics
  • pottery
  • creative
  • archaeology
  • ruins


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