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To pot or not to pot

Archaeological evidence, together with the example of primitive tribes in recent times, suggests that the earliest containers used by neolithic man range from hollowed out pieces of stone or wood to more elaborate artefacts such as bags of animal skin and, above all, baskets. Basketry is one of the earliest crafts to be developed. Almost every region of the world has suitable materials, in grasses, reeds or willows, and the resulting object is both cheap and light.

But baskets are not good for containing liquids. For that purpose early technology soon finds another material which is cheap, widely available and (by comparison with stone) relatively light. This material is clay.

Not all societies have developed the useful craft of pottery. Nomads tend not to be potters. The technical demands of pottery do not fit well with life on the move, and pots are too fragile for a nomadic existence. Equally, in areas where nature provides admirable pots in the form of gourds, the potter's trade seems an unnecessary labour.

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.

The earliest wares at Catal Huyuk 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.

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

The potter's wheel: 3000 BC

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 ia 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 (thus avoiding having to walk around it).

By about 3000 BC a simple revolving wheel is a part of the potter's equipment in Mesopotamia, the cradle of so many innovations.

Greek vases: 6th - 5th century BC

The Greeks develop by far the most sophisticated tradition of early pottery, and Greek vases survive in greater numbers than any other ceramic group of comparable age.

During the period of greatest distinction, from about 550 to 480 BC, the potters of Athens and the surrounding district of Attica are the most accomplished in the Greek world. It is they who perfect the decorative style known as black-figure and then introduce the subsequent red-figure technique. Crucial to the success of both is the discovery of the Attic potters, in the 6th century, that an attractive warm colour can be given to the undecorated surface of a pot by the addition of red ochre to the clay.

In the mid-6th century the vase painters decorate the surface of the pots with figurative scenes from mythology in black silhouette. This is done by painting on a mixture of iron-rich clay and potash before the vase is fired. In this black-figure style, detail is achieved by incising lines within the silhouette to allow the reddish clay to show through.

The painters become extremely proficient in this technique, but pale details on solid black figures are the reverse of any normal drawing convention. The fashion rapidly changes after about 530 BC, when the black is first used for the opposite purpose - to form the background against which the figures will stand out in the natural colour of the vase. This is the red-figure style.

The red-figure style is a much more realistic convention. Many of the most popular scenes on vases involve mythical heroes or revelling satyrs. Such figures, to a Greek audience, seem natural if naked. The reddish-brown colour of the pottery is appropriate to Mediterranean skin, and a few linear additions to the figure provide convincing modelling for the limbs or for the suggestion of a thin garment.

From about 530 to 480, the period considered the high point of the Greek ceramic achievement, the red-figure style prevails.

Greek vases are essentially practical objects. They are made in more than a dozen standard shapes, each with a specific purpose - for storing wine or olive oil or precious unguents, for heating or cooling liquids, for pouring and drinking. Their makers are essentially craftsmen, and the potters and vase painters do not have the same prestige as painters or sculptors. But it is significant that by the 6th century it is normal for the potter to be named on the vase (with an inscription in black letters).

Often the potter alone is named. Sometimes both he and the painter are given ('Ergotimos made me; Kleitias painted me'), and on occasion a rare master has both skills ('Exekias painted and made me').

Glazed ceramics: 9th - 1st century BC

In all the early civilizations, from Mesopotamia and Egypt onwards, pottery is a highly developed craft. An outstanding achievement is the Greek ceramic tradition of the 6th and 5th century BC. But technically all these pots suffer from a major disadvantage. Fired earthenware is tough but it is porous. Liquid will soak into it and eventually leak through it. This has some advantages with water (where evaporation from the surface cools the contents of the jug) but is less appropriate for storing wine or milk.

The solution is the addition of a glaze. This technological breakthrough is made in Mesopotamia in the 9th century BC for decorative tiles. It is not adapted for practical everyday purposes until many centuries later.

A glaze is a substance, applied to the inner or outer surface of an unfired pot, which vitrifies in the kiln - meaning that it forms a glassy skin, which fuses with the earthenware and makes it impermeable to liquids.

But glazes, which can be of any colour, also have a highly decorative quality. It is for this purpose that they are first developed, as a facing for ceramic tiles, in Mesopotamia from the 9th century BC. The most famous examples are from the 6th century palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.

Glazed pots make their appearance in the Middle East in about the 1st century BC, possibly being developed first in Egypt. The characteristic colour is green, from copper in the glaze. Pottery of this kind is common in imperial Rome a century later.

By this time glazed pottery is also being manufactured in Han dynasty China. It may be that the development occurs independently in the Middle East and in China, but by now there could also be a direct influence in either direction. Rome and China are already linked by the Silk Road, and glazed ceramics are attractive commodities.

African terracotta figures: from the 5th century BC

The longest surviving tradition of African sculpture is figures in terracotta. Cast metal is the only other material to withstand the continent's termites (fatal to the carved wood of most African sculpture). But the superb metal sculptures of Nigeria, beginning in about the 12th century, are of a much later period than the first terracottas.

West Africa, and in particular modern Nigeria, provides the longest and richest sequence of terracotta figures. They date back two and a half millennia to the extraordinary Nok sculptures. By around the 1st centuryfigures of a wonderful severity are being modelled in the Sokoto region of northwest Nigeria.

Terracotta heads and figures have been found in Ife, dating from the 12th to 15th century - the same period as the first cast-metal sculptures of this region. At Jenne, further north in Mali, archaeologists (followed unfortunately by thieves) have recently unearthed superb terracottas of the same period.

One extraordinary group of terracottas is the exception in this mainly west African story, in that they come from south Africa where they are the earliest known sculptures. They are seven heads, found at Lydenburg in the Transvaal. Modelled in a brutally chunky style, they date from about the 6th century AD.

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