Early Pottery History Part 1 - How it is being made

Early Pottery History Part 1

How it is being made? People first started making pottery out of clay in East Asia, in both China and Japan, around 14,000 BC, long before they started farming. Probably they had always known how, but just hadn't done it much.

Early Pottery History - How pottery it is being made

But most communities, tending their crops in the Neolithic Revolution, soon discover the technique and use of pottery. With one remarkable exception, at Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic (where models of animals and a Venus figurine have been dated to about 25,000 years ago), the earliest examples come from the Middle East, the region where agriculture first develops. Pottery fragments from about 6500 BC have been found at Catal Huyuk in Turkey.

Pottery fragments from about 6500 BC

The earliest wares are made by one of the standard methods of primitive potters. Rings or coils of clay are built up from a circular base. The walls of the pot are then smoothed and thinned (by simultaneous pressure on the inner and outer surfaces) before being fired in a bread oven or in the most elementary of kilns - a hole in the ground, above which a bonfire is lit.

Ancient Pottery kilns - a hole in the ground

In Japan, early pots might be buried in the ground for storage. One reason for starting to make pottery in Japan may have been to preserve fish by fermenting it into fish sauce in these buried pots.

Pottery is made by forming a clay body into objects of a required shape and heating them to high temperatures in a kiln which removes all the water from the clay, which induces reactions that lead to permanent changes including increasing their strength and hardening and setting their shape. This early pottery was made by just pushing a hole into a ball of clay, or by making a long snake of clay and coiling it up into a pot shape. A clay body can be decorated before or after firing. Prior to some shaping processes, clay must be prepared.

Pottery is made by forming a clay body

Early Neolithic pottery is usually undecorated. Where there is decoration, it takes the form of patterns cut or pressed into the damp clay.

People probably began to make pottery in the Americas for similar reasons, though several thousand years later. People who ate a lot of fish and shellfish were making pottery in Brazil about 5500 BC, and maybe they also used pottery jars to preserve fish by fermenting it. From Brazil, people gradually began using pottery further north, perhaps spreading to fish-eating ancestors of the Cherokee and other Mississippians in what is now Florida and Georgia by about 4500 BC, and then to the west side of South America.

When a pot is built up from the base by hand, it is impossible that it should be perfectly round. The solution to this problem is the potter's wheel, which has been a crucial factor in the history of ceramics. It is not known when or where the potter's wheel is introduced. Indeed it is likely that it develops very gradually, from a platform on which the potter turns the pot before shaping another side. In the hands of someone who is good at using it, it does make potting a lot faster.

By about 3000 BC a simple revolving wheel is a part of the potter's equipment in Mesopotamia, the cradle of so many innovations. At the beginning of the Bronze Age, people in West Asia had begun to use the slow potter's wheel. 

Slow Ancient Pottery Wheel

The slow wheel was also invented in Central America, where the Zapotec were using it to make pottery, maybe by around 100 BC. The Zapotec kept right on using the slow wheel, but by 2000 BC, the slow wheel had been almost entirely replaced in Europe and Asia by the fast wheel, which is also a platform, but one which spins on an axle, like a top. Using the fast wheel, a good potter can make a pot every minute or so, and all of them almost exactly the same. You can start it spinning with a push or a kick, and then draw the pot gradually out of the lump of clay. It's much faster than coiling or the slow wheel, and so pots got much cheaper than they had been before.

Beginning of the Roman Empire saw some big technological and economic changes in the Western pottery industry. First, people began painting pottery red instead of black. Then they began making it in molds instead of painting it. Around the same time, the Phoenicians invented glass-blowing, and this made glass cheap enough to be a serious competitor with pottery. People pretty much stopped making pottery cups, and everyone drank out of glasses. Even a lot of bowls, and little things like perfume containers, were made out of glass...

Expect Part 2 for Early Pottery History

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