Earthenware pottery has been made in Korea since 8000 BCE and the art of making ceramics was perfected in the 11th century. Korean ceramics emphasise function and practicality, focusing on unpretentious forms, understated decoration and subtle colours.
Korean ceramics originate in the Three Kingdoms of Korea (57 BC-668 AD). Rough domestic ware was produced as well as very sophisticated statues of royal figures, guardians, and horses, equivalent to Chinese Han Dynasty figures, used for domestic and imperial votive shrines, and for escorts of the dead in tombs of the nobles and kings. But it was not until the nearly five centuries of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) that stoneware with a fine bluish-green glaze became famous, known in the West as celadon.
The colour of Goryeo celadon is due to the raw materials – specifically, the presence of iron in the clay and of iron oxide, manganese oxide, and quartz particles in the glaze – as well as to the firing conditions inside the kiln. The combination of a beautiful glaze with elegant forms without any surface decoration resulted in exceptional vessels produced between the late 11th century and the early part of 12th century. Some 270 kilns existed during this period during which the potters perfected their skills and began to experiment with carved and incised decoration under the sea-green glaze.
The shapes vary considerably, the most common being vases, dishes in the form of a flower, wine ewers in the form of a melon or gourd, wine cups with matching stands, and water-droppers in the form of human figures or fruit. There is a double-gourd celadon wine bottle from the mid-12th century in the collection of the National Museum in Seoul with an inscription that reads:
“The bottle is like green jade, finely engraved with golden flowers.
A noble family should use it, filling it joyfully with wine.
One should revere old age and know how to greet an honoured guest.
We cherish the Spring and sit intoxicated by the mirror of the lake.”
It is said that even the Chinese considered Korean celadon “the best under heaven and more valuable than gold”.