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Ancient Pottery

Prehistoric clay-fired vessels
Paleolithic & Neolithic eras

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Paleolithic pottery found in Xianrendong Cave, China. Among the oldest ceramic vessels in China
Ancient Chinese pottery vessel found at Xianrendong (Xianren) Cave, in southeastern China. The site contains the world's oldest known earthenware pots, dated to 18,000 BC. Image by Unknown author. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

What is Pottery? What's the Difference Between Ceramics and Pottery?

Answer: Ceramics refers to all objects (industrial items, pots, sculpture, and so on), that are fashioned from clay and then fired in kilns or open fires.

Pottery, on the other hand, refers only to containers (that is, vessels, jars etc., typically used in cooking, eating or storage), made using the same ceramic process.

Ceramics is a bigger category than pottery, but not necessarily more modern. The Venus of Dolní Věstonice, for example - one of the great treasures of Upper Paleolithic art - is a ceramic figurine which was made between 29,000 and 25,000 BC.

By comparison the earliest pots appeared at the Xianren Cave (18,000 BC) in Jiangxi, and Yuchanyan Cave (16,000 BC) in Hunan, both in China.

What are the Main Types of Pottery

Answer: There are three main types of clay-fired pottery: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain.

What's the Difference Between Earthenware, Stoneware and Porcelain?

Answer: They differ mostly in the temperature needed to fire them. The difference in firing temperature, results in differences in strength, water resistance and durability of the finished products.

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How did Pottery Develop?

Evidence of fire hearths has been recovered from many paleolithic caves, showing that early humans began using fire regularly from about 200,000 BC. See: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

At the same time, clay was a relatively common material, with a variety of uses. It was therefore only a matter of time before people began baking clay objects in fires.

At the same time, rather like cave painting - which only reached its full potential during the Magdalenian period around 15,000 BC - the evolution of pottery was largely determined by a community's manpower, resources and organization skills, as well as its cultural maturity.

So, as semi-nomadic Stone Age culture gave way to a more permanent network of agricultural settlements, followed later by towns and cities, demand for ceramic ware rose significantly.

As a result, pottery technology improved, leading to a wider range of vessels, and more sophisticated styles.

Aided by potter's wheels and improving kiln technology, what began as a primitive activity with rudimentary, hand-shaped pots, made of common red clay and baked on bonfires, rapidly grew into a sophisticated industry with centres of excellence throughout the known world.

Where and When Was Pottery Invented?

Answer: Pottery did not have a single birthplace. Instead, the evidence indicates there were several centres of ceramic technology that emerged independently of each other.

One of the earliest ceramic traditions, and the one that has outlasted all others, is the Chinese pottery tradition.

Other ceramic cultures, some of which emerged earlier, have proved to be far less enduring, sometimes lasting only a few thousand years.

For information about dating techniques applicable to ceramics, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

The World's Earliest Pottery

See: Ancient Pottery Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Why Did Pottery Start in China?

Answer: Experts believe pottery production was triggered by adverse climatic conditions.

Pottery at Xianren, for instance, was created at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, when temperatures in China were exceptionally low. As a result, people had to extract the maximum calorific and nutritional value from their food, in order to survive.

To do this, experts believe, they made pots to cook with, since cooking boosts nutrient intake from meat and fibrous plant food.

Fortunately, China has an abundance of clay, kaolin and other materials used in pottery making, notably in the coastal and inland provinces in the south of the country.

The unique relationship that China has with pottery is also seen in the evolution of porcelain. China began making true porcelain as early as the 9th century, while Europeans proved unable to make any until the 18th century.

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How is Pottery Decorated?

Clay-fired pottery is decorated in a variety of ways.

History of Ancient Pottery

Chronology

Paleolithic Pottery

From China's Xianren Cave, pottery spread east to Japan (14,500 BC), north to the Amur River Basin in Russia (14,200 BC), and west into Western Asia and the Mediterranean basin (6,300 BC).

That said, the large settlement of hunter-gatherers at Dolní Věstonice, in present-day Moravia, was producing clay-fired prehistoric sculpture as early as 29,000 BC, ten thousand years before China began making primitive clay-fired crockery.

The settlement is also noted for having the world's first known pottery kiln - indirectly dated to 29-26,000 BC.

Fragments of similar clay-fired sculpture, dating to 15,500 BC, were recently unearthed at the Vela Spila Cave in Croatia. Sadly, the Croatian ceramic tradition only lasted for about two thousand years before vanishing from the archaeological record. Pottery-making only reappeared in the region, around 5,000 BC.

All this suggests that ceramic technology was invented in different places around the world - a theory further supported by discoveries at Ounjougou, in Central Mali, in the SW Sahara region of Africa, where shards of pottery were found, dating to 9,400 BC.

The discoveries at Xianren Cave destroyed the theory that pottery-making only began during the Neolithic period, when modern humans turned to farming and animal husbandry. They showed that humans were making pots during the Paleolithic, 10,000 years earlier.

That said, paleolithic pottery remained extremely primitive. Most early Chinese pottery, for instance, was rudimentary earthenware, baked in bonfires for a short time at temperatures up to 600 degrees Celsius.

To reduce the risk of cracking, vessels were created with round bottoms to avoid the more vulnerable sharp angles and rims. Glazes were unheard of, and decoration was limited to impressed patterns created by coiled ropes and basketry.

Jōmon pottery - the earliest style of ceramic ware in Japan - was named after the Japanese for 'straw rope pattern' - the technique of making patterns on the outside of the pot, by pressing rope into the clay before firing it.

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Neolithic Pottery

Although clay-fired pottery first appeared during the Upper Paleolithic, it only became a universal product during the Neolithic. Indeed, during the late Neolithic, some ceramic pottery constitutes ancient art of great beauty and skill.

Why did Pottery Take Off During the Neolithic Age?

Answer: Because of two important inventions:

China

Following its invention, about 18,000 BC, Ancient Chinese pottery remained very primitive for many years. It consisted of rough hand-made earthenware, which was fired at low temperatures in bonfires. Decoration was limited to abstract or geometric motifs applied by stamping, impressing or other simple methods.

Nonetheless, Chinese potters - notably in southern China - soon began to create a range of delicate, polished vessels, in a range of colours, for more ceremonial purposes.

These new forms appeared throughout the Neolithic Age, in a number of cultures that flourished along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. These cultures included: the Dadiwan culture (5,900-5,200 BC) and the Yangshao (5,000-3,000 BC), as well as the more advanced Longshan (3,000-1,900 BC) and Dawenkou cultures (4,300 to 2,500 BC).

The development of ancient Chinese pottery was helped by two factors. First, China's rich clay soil contained the perfect mix of loess, kaolin, and albite for earthenware and stoneware.

Second, well before 2,000 BC, Chinese ceramicists developed several types of kilns that could fire pottery at around 1,500 degrees Celsius.

Third, from around 3,000 BC, the knowledge obtained from working in bronze, helped to progress the use of metals in pottery technology.

Ironically, however, Chinese Bronze Age pottery is seen as generally inferior to Neolithic pottery. Experts believe this was because of the increased use of bronze vessels in rituals and funerary ceremonies.

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Pottery Spreads From China

From its invention in Jiangxi Province, in 18,000 BC, the Chinese ceramic tradition spread across the sea to Japan (where it evolved into the Jōmon pottery culture), and north into Russia, where it spawned Amur River Basin pottery, associated with two different archaeological complexes -the Gromatukha and Osipovka.

It also moved overland into Western Asia, arriving in Ancient Persia (Iran) by about 8,000 BC. Thereafter, it reaches most of Europe by a variety of routes and timelines.

Further afield, pottery know-how spreads to India (by 7,000 BC) and to the Americas (by 5,000 BC), but not it seems to Australia, as no remains of ceramic pots have been found at sites of Aboriginal rock art from this period. However, as mentioned above, African potters began their own independent pottery industry in Mali, no later than 9,400 BC.

Japan

Ancient Japanese earthenware began around 14,500 BC with the Jōmon pottery tradition. Jōmon means 'rope-patterned', after the patterns that are pressed into the clay bodies.

The oldest known Japanese pots, created during the Incipient Jōmon culture, were discovered at the Odai Yamamoto I site, in Aomori Prefecture, and were dated to 14,540 BC.

The next oldest pottery comes from the Kamino site in southwest Japan, and dates to 14,000 BC.

Jōmon pots come in five main types:

Jōmon pottery was used mainly for storing food, although scientists have found signs it was also used for storing corpses of infants.

Jōmon pottery culture is commonly divided into six phases:

Russia

Amur River basin pottery (14,200 BC) has been dated and recorded at the Khummi and Gasya sites.

This primitive Epipaleolithic pottery was followed (eventually) by a more complex Neolithic style, which was produced across the Russian Far East by 6,000 BC, by the Gromatukha and Novopetrovsk cultures.

To the West, the oldest known Siberian pottery was found at the Ust-Karenga archeological site, by the Karena river near Lake Baikal. It dates to between 11,800 and 10,500 BC.

This is not far from sites belonging to the Mal'ta–Buret' culture on the upper Angara River, where the Mal'ta Venuses and Buret Venuses were discovered near Usolsky, about 60 miles northwest of Irkutsk.

Ancient Persia

The Kingdom of Ancient Persia sat astride the overland trade routes which linked China with the Mediterranean.

As a result, it absorbed Chinese pottery traditions no later than 8,000 BC, many centuries before they arrived in Europe.

That said, much of Persia's pottery (notably that of Susa) was strongly influenced by the Sumerian Uruk culture.

Nonetheless, ancient pottery has been found at numerous sites in western Persia, including Ganj Dareh and Teppe Sarab, as well as sites in the Zagros Mountains. Pottery centres were also found in south west Iran, at Susa and Chogha Mish.

Mesopotamia

This ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was the dominant Neolithic culture of the Middle East from about 7,000 to 2,000 BC.

One of the earliest pottery centres was Nevalı Çori (8,600-7,500 BC), on the middle Euphrates in southeastern Turkey, which was noted for its small (5 cm) anthropomorphic clay figurines, produced as votive offerings.

By 6,500 BC, pottery was the second most important form of Mesopotamian art after architecture.

Mesopotamian civilization revolved around the Hassuna culture (7,000-5,900 BC) in the north; the Halaf culture (6,500-5,500 BC) in the northwest; the Samarra culture (5,500-4,800 BC) in the centre of the country; and the Ubaid culture (5,500-4,000 BC) and Uruk culture (4,000-3,100 BC) in the southeast.

Ubaid and Uruk cultures were part of the larger Sumerian culture (c.4000-2000 BC), which became the region's first political 'state'.

As cities - like Eridu, Uruk, Ur - grew up in the region, demand rose for all types of ceramic products. As a result, quality improved accordingly.

After the decline of Sumerian power, Mesopotamia was dominated by Assyria and Babylonia. For details of pottery in these countries, along with other arts and crafts, see: Babylonian Art (1830-539 BC), Hittite Art (2000-750 BC), and Assyrian Art (911-609 BC).

When Was the Potters Wheel Invented?

No one really knows when the Potter's wheel was invented, or by whom. Chances are, it was invented by different people in different locations, including China, Mali, Romania and Egypt. Certain primitive forms of the potter's wheel (known as tourneys or tournettes) are known to have been in use in the Middle East around 4,500 BC, while a stone potter's wheel proper was found in the city of Ur, in Mesopotamia, dating to about 3,129 BC.

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Europe

Excluding the two ceramic hotspots of Dolní Věstonice and Vela Spila, mentioned above, pottery technology first arrived in Europe from Syria and Iraq during the eighth millennium BC. Thessalia in central Greece was the first region in Europe to make pottery, between 7,500 and 7,000 BC.

This Greek pottery style was centred on the settlement of Sesklo, whose culture spread northwards - mostly along the Tisza and Danube rivers - and spawned the proto-Linear Pottery Culture in central Europe and the associated Hamangia Culture in Romania.

In due course, the proto-Linear Pottery culture then gave birth to two cultural movements of its own:

A separate strand of Mediterranean Neolithic pottery - the Cardium Pottery Culture (6,000-4,500 BC), a style of 'impressed ware' - spread westwards along the Adriatic and Mediterranean coastline into Albania and Dalmatia, Italy, the French Rhone Valley, and the Iberian Peninsula.

Ancient India

Bhirran culture (7,570-1,900 BC), named after a village in the Indian state of Haryana, is probably the most ancient pre-Harappan neolithic site dating back to 7,570 BC.

Bhirran pottery includes chocolate coloured slipware, brown-on-buff ware (vessels of brownish clay with a white to buff slip), bichrome ware (vessels painted on the exterior with black and white pigments), black-on-red vessels and plain red pottery.

The next major Neolithic culture in India, is the Mehrgarh culture, named after the archaeological site on the Kacchi Plain of Balochistan, in present-day Pakistan.

Mehrgarh I, (7,000–5,500 BC) - was largely aceramic, but by the time of Mehrgarh II (5,500-4,800 BC), pottery was already established, especially in present-day northwest India and Pakistan.

Ceramic production improved and expanded further during the period of Mehrgarh III (4,800-3,500 BC). Around this time, according to some experts, the culture migrated into the Indus Valley and became the Indus Valley civilization of the Bronze Age culture (from 3,300 BC).

The Indus civilization was first documented in 1921 at Harappa in the Punjab region and the following year at Mohenjo-daro (Mohenjodaro), near the Indus River in the Sindh (Sind) region.

Also known as the Harappan Civilization, after the type-site Harappa, in the Punjab, this remarkable culture was active from about 3,500 to 1,300 BC, passing through five phases of pottery production.

This, despite the fact that Hindu traditions historically discouraged the use of pottery for food consumption.

During the era of Iron Age art, around 1,300 BC, it was followed by the Indo-Gangetic traditions of painted grey ware and northern black polished ware.

Indus Valley ceramic ware mainly consists of very fine wheel-made vessels left largely undecorated. These plain items are typically made out of red clay, with or without a slip (red or grey). Black painted vessels usually have a red slip decorated with geometric and zoomorphic designs applied in glossy black paint.

Multi-coloured pottery is rare and mostly consists of small vases embellished with geometric patterns in red, black, and green - white and yellow are rarely used.

Engraved or incised decoration is also rare. Domestic pottery was produced in a multiplicity of shapes and sizes. Graceful curves are the rule, with straight and angular shapes being the exception.

The Americas

Neolithic pottery in North and South America dates back to the sixth millennium BC (5,000 BC).

In South America, the oldest ceramics come from the Amazon Basin. They were recovered from the Pedra Pintada Cave, near the town of Monte Alegre, Brazil, were carbon-dated to 5,500 BC. Pots from Taperinho - another site not far from Monte Alegre, have been dated to 5,000 BC.

From Amazonia, pottery culture spread west and south, and eventually north via Mesoamerica.

San Jacinto ceramics in Colombia date to about 4,500 BC, while Alaka pottery created in Guyana dates to 4,000 BC. In Ecuador, the earliest pottery appeared around 3,200 BC, during the Valdivia culture; while in Peru it first emerged during the Pandanche culture around 2,450 BC.

It was in Panama by 2,140 BC, Costa Rica by 1,890 BC, southern Mexico (Purron tradition) by 1,805 BC, Guatemala by 1,680 BC, and northern Mexico (Chajil tradition) by 1,600 BC.

The highest quality vessels was produced in the Andes and on the west coast, especially in Bolivia and Peru. Vessels were typically decorated with painted images of animals and humans. Pots from Chile, Argentina, Columbia and Ecuador, were of lower quality.

Pottery was first made in North America around 2,800 BC, more than a thousand years before it appeared in Mexico. Ceramic pots discovered in the Savannah River valley in Georgia and South Carolina, date to about 2,890 BC. This chronology suggests that pottery was invented independently by the indigenous population.

Africa

As mentioned above, the oldest known African pottery comes from Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2007, Swiss scientists discovered ceramic sherds at Ounjougou, in Central Mali, which dated to 9,400 BC. See: Oldest Art in Africa.

Fragments of Mesolithic and Neolithic pottery was also found at three archaeological sites in Central Sudan: namely, Khartoum Hospital, Esh Shaheinab, and El Qoz.

The fragments belonged to funerary vessels and were discovered in burial pits. The containers were decorated with wavy serpentiforms and dotted patterns.

British archaeologist A.J.Arkell (1898-1980) identified two main cultural phases - the 'Wavy Line Culture' or 'Early Khartoum' (or 'Khartoum Mesolithic') and the 'Gouge Culture' (or 'Khartoum Neolithic').

Another Neolithic site is the Takarkori rock shelter in the Acacus mountains of southern Libya, where remains of pottery dating to 5,200 BC were uncovered by British archeologists.

In the semi-arid Sahel border region linking the Sahara desert to tropical Africa, numerous sites have produced sherds dating back to 3,000 BC.

Probably the best-known pottery in Africa, is Egyptian faience - a non-clay-based ceramic mastered by Egyptian craftsmen, although it originally came from Ur, in Mesopotamia.

The earliest faience workshop, complete with lined brick kilns and dating to 5,500 BC, was uncovered in the holy Egyptian city of Abydos.

Faience was produced by mixing sand crystals with calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and copper oxide. The resulting paste was shaped and fired. During heating, the shapes would develop bright colours and a glassy finish.

Named after the Egyptian word for 'shining', faience ceramics were believed to reflect the light of immortality.

Ancient Greece

In the west, ancient pottery reached its zenith at the hands of Greek potters.

The Greek talent for pottery stemmed from the Third Millennium BC, when Thessaly was superceded by the Aegean islands as the leading centre of ceramics.

The latter included the Cycladic, Minoan (Cretan) and Mycenaean cultures, which emerged around 2,600 BC, and ended about 1,100 BC.

Cycladic pottery, characterized by its geometric and marine motifs motifs, made a significant contribution to the Aegean renaissance, but the most important work was done in Crete during the Minoan Protopalatial era (2,000-1,800 BC), when the magnificent palaces of Phaistos and Knossos were being constructed, and also during the Neopalatial period (1,650-1,425 BC), when new palaces were built at Galatas and Zakros.

The high points of the Minoan pottery tradition included the Late Minoan Kamares ware, and the all-over patterns of the 'Marine Style' and 'Floral Style'. All these were widely exported around the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

If Minoan pottery was popular throughout the region, Mycenaean ceramics - named after the site of Mycenae, south of Corinth - proved far less so.

Its main product was the Mycenaean stirrup jar, which became a hallmark of the olive oil trade around the Aegean.

Then in the 12th century BC, mainland Greece was overrun by migrant tribes from the North, which severely impacted arts and crafts throughout the country.

Greek Resurgence

The resurgence of Ancient Greek pottery began around 900 BC, with the appearance of the Geometric Style (900-725 BC), defined by its geometric imagery.

After this, from about 725 BC onwards, came the Orientalizing Period (725-600 BC), a decorative style based on curvilinear motifs borrowed from the Levant, whose effect was in total contrast to the earlier geometric idiom.

The new 'Oriental' style was adopted heavily by Corinthian potters, who invented a new type of pottery - Black Figure Pottery - to enable them to depict detailed Oriental-style imagery on their miniature aryballos jars.

Black Figure pottery - whose designs were painted in black, on a red clay background - was succeeded by Red Figure pottery about 530 BC, where designs appeared in red against a black background.

These Red and Black styles were the subject of intense competition between the two great schools of Greek pottery - Corinth and Athens.

Greek pottery of the Classical Period (480-330 BC) proved to be an anti-climax, except for the White Ground technique which proved very popular during the 5th and 4th centuries, especially for its small lekythoi - cylindrical flasks with narrow necks and loop-shaped handles - used as grave offerings.

Thereafter, the quality and creativity of Greek ceramics plunged, sustained only by a series of regional styles in the colonies, although Hellenistic traditions in painting and pottery continued to exert a significant influence over emerging centres of Etruscan pottery, and on Roman pottery until the reign of Augustus.

NEXT: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Cooper, Emmanuel, 10,000 Years of Pottery, 4th ed., 2010, University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 978-0-8122-2140-4.
(2) Barnett, William & Hoopes, John (Eds.) (1995). The Emergence of Pottery. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-56098-517-8.
(3) Bar-Yosef, Ofer; Arpin, Trina; Pan, Yan; Cohen, David; Goldberg, Paul; Zhang, Chi; Wu, Xiaohong (29 June 2012). "Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China". Science. 336 (6089): 1696–1700.
(4) Marshall, Michael (2012). "Oldest pottery hints at cooking's ice-age origins". New Scientist. 215 (2872): 14.
(5) 'AMS 14C Age Of The Earliest Pottery From The Russian Far East; 1996–2002.' Derevianko A.P., Kuzmin Y.V., Burr G.S., Jull A.J.T., Kim J.C. Nuclear Instruments And Methods In Physics Research. B223–224 (2004) 735–39.

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