A reflection on the history of pottery, throughout different cultures.
Pottery is considered our oldest handicraft. The first ceramic pot made for practical use dates back to the 18,000 BCE, found in the southeast province of China, Jiangxi, but it was mainly during the Neolithic Period, around 9,000 BCE, that the use of ceramics became more popular, when communities established and dedicated to agriculture and farming. Ceramics became popular for storing food and water. During this time, pottery was mainly fired at lower temperatures in rudimentary kilns dug into the ground.
Around 4,000 BCE, it is believed that the making of pottery was already being practiced at the region of Brazil, in America. Then it slowly spread all through South, Central and North America, with mainly handbuilt pieces, decorated with naturally coloured slips.
The great revolution for pottery, specially for making serial objects, was the invention of the potter’s wheel, sometime around 3,500 BCE. The Egyptians used slow turning pottery wheels to create their pots. Then, they dried them and rubbed the surface with a smooth stone, and decorated them with a fine layer of another colour of clay. They also developed a substance composed of quartz, soda, and mineral containing copper which, when fired, resulted in something very similar to what today we call ‘glaze’. It resulted in a glass-like surface, which made the pots non-porous.
Later, in ancient Greece, people also used the potter's wheel to create their pots, but this time it evolved in them wheel-throwing the different parts of the pot (body, neck and foot) and attaching them together with a ‘slip’. The same technique was used to attach handles. Then, they decorated the pots with very detailed designs, painted with oxides and coloured clay. Images of daily life and stories of their gods were depicted in their ceramics.
Until then, the main clay used by potters was earthenware (low-fire clay).
It was in China, around the 600 CE, where the first high-fire kilns were invented, which could reach up to 1350°C. The Chinese developed porcelain, a very fine, high-fire material made from kaolin clay. Porcelain came up as a very resistant and highly demanded pottery material, which was first introduced through the Islamic countries, and then through Europe brought by Marco Polo’s journeys.
In the 18th century, and as a result of the industrial revolution, synthetic materials with better resistance to higher temperatures were developed. Since then, the ceramic industry has gone through a profound transformation.
What can be found today at ceramic shops is mainly industrially produced clay, which has been created to react in a certain way at different temperatures. However, some potters still dig their own clay.
A wide range of glazes, underglazes, and other decorative materials have been developed by the ceramic industry, offering us an endless range of possibilities when it comes to a finished ceramic pot.
There is no doubt that we keep making pots today in a very similar way to how pots were made at the beginning, but we do enjoy many more possibilities thanks to technological developments, mainly in terms of firing processes (the electric kiln!).
Sometimes it’s good to look back at our ancestors and learn those basic techniques by looking at and studying their work, and the way they achieved some magnificent results with less resources than what we have at hand today.
If you'd like to try your hand at making your own pottery, we run monthly workshop about handbuilding & have our very own At Home: Clay Handbuilding Craft Kits so you can start your clay journey anywhere and at any time.
Featured Image : TerraCotta Lentoid Flask / 11th Century BC / MET Museum