It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact timeline of how pottery came about, because the word includes so many different definitions. Can we include the prehistoric figurines or does ‘pottery’ only refer to pots and bowls? How about clay structures that have been dried but not fired? Here we’ll look at the origins of pottery in all its forms, including this year's hottest trend - pottery classes in Sydney.
Where and when was pottery discovered?
The oldest known examples of ceramics appear to date back to anywhere between 29 and 24,000 BC. A notable discovery was a female figurine in the modern Czech Republic. Early examples include figures and shapes made out of clay. Not the pots and bowls we would use to define the art of ‘pottery’ today. Historians believe that these figurines had ceremonial uses.
Other archeological discoveries place the invention of pottery closer to 18 to 14,000 BC. As excavators found clay tiles in India and Mesopotamia dating back to this period. This is because not everyone considers the early figurines to be examples of ‘pottery’.
The jury is also out on where pottery originated. Some say China, some say Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Prehistoric examples of clay molding have been found in all those places. It’s likely that people from all over discovered pottery at different moments.
Ancient uses for pottery
No one can know how the first humans came to discover that mixing clay and water, then molding and heating the mixture would cause it to hold that shape. Some historians believe that people would line their wooden baskets with clay, when collecting water, to stop any leakage. Then, when they emptied the water out and left the baskets in the sun, they found that the clay dried out and retained the shape and markings of the basket. Others think that early humans made the discovery in clay fire pits.
Ancient methods of firing clay were similar to modern bonfires. Back in the Medieval age, people would mix sand with their clay so that they could fire it over an open flame. In ancient Egypt, people would use kilns to fire clay into pottery. This is how we distinguish between two types of pottery; ‘Earthenware’ and ‘Stoneware’. The former is usually fired at temperatures up to 1,200 degrees and the latter around 1,100 degrees or higher. There is also ‘Porcelain’, made from kaolin clay and fired at temperatures between 1,200 and 1,400 degrees. This particular type of clay and the higher temperatures are what give porcelain its translucent quality.
Around 9 to 10,000 BC, it’s thought that pottery was first used for storing food and other goods. Since its beginnings, pottery has had diverse uses including transportation, storage and decoration. We can guess that the earliest functional uses were transporting and storing fish and grain. Then, seeing how well these creations transported and stored produce, people likely began using them to cook and serve their food.
Invention of the Pottery Wheel
Historians can agree that the invention of the pottery wheel is much more recent. Evidence suggests that it dates to roughly 4,000 BC. The pottery wheel seems to have evolved from potters using the coiling method on a mat or large leaf. The pottery maker would roll their clay into long strips and stack them on top of one another. But instead of walking around the pot to join the ends, they would rotate the mat or leaf.
From there, people constructed hand manipulated wheels, and later, rotating wheels. The latter refers to a wheel that rotates on its own using speed built up from pushing or kicking it. Again, historians are unable to pinpoint exactly where this practice started. Evidence of wheel-thrown pottery has been found dating back to Mesopotamia, ancient China, Europe and Egypt.
We do know that the potter’s wheel, as we know it today, most likely originated in Egypt. It's there that workers developed a structure which resemble the modern appearance. Including the addition of a flywheel which makers would kick to keep it moving.
One thing we know for sure is that pottery is incredibly durable and lasting. These findings have been invaluable in giving us clues about preliterate cultures. Where we have been unable to find documentation about life so long ago, we can get a window into these early societies through pottery. Its compositions, the shapes, markings and colours all show us important aspects of prehistoric life.
Jumping forward in time to the first millenium (in the Gregorian calendar), China began exporting porcelain. At the same time, they started producing it for decorative purposes. As the Modern Industrial era began in the 16th Century, the mass-production of pottery began. Most notably, the English city of Stoke-on-Trent was home to one of the first example of industrialisation of ceramic production. Around 200 factories dedicated to making ceramics employed roughly 20,000 workers.