Pottery is the ceramic material which makes up pottery wares, of
which major types include earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. The
place where such wares are made by a potter is also called a pottery
(plural "potteries"). The definition of pottery used by the American
Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is "all fired ceramic wares
that contain clay when formed, except technical, structural, and
Pottery is one of the oldest human inventions, originating before the
Neolithic period, with ceramic objects like the
Venus of Dolní Věstonice
Venus of Dolní Věstonice figurine discovered in the Czech Republic
date back to 29,000–25,000 BC, and pottery vessels that were
discovered in Jiangxi, China, which date back to 18,000 BC. Early
Neolithic pottery have been found in places such as
(10,500 BC), the Russian Far East (14,000 BC), Sub-Saharan
Africa and South America.
Pottery is made by forming a ceramic (often 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. A clay body can be decorated before or after
firing; however, prior to some shaping processes, clay must be
prepared. Kneading helps to ensure an even moisture content throughout
the body. Air trapped within the clay body needs to be removed. This
is called de-airing and can be accomplished either by a machine called
a vacuum pug or manually by wedging. Wedging can also help produce an
even moisture content. Once a clay body has been kneaded and de-aired
or wedged, it is shaped by a variety of techniques. After shaping, it
is dried and then fired.
1 Production stages
Clay bodies and mineral contents
3 Methods of shaping
4 Decorating and glazing
6.1 Early pottery
6.2 History of pottery types
6.3 History by region
6.3.1 Far East Asia
6.3.2 South Asia
6.3.3 Near East
6.3.4 Western Mediterranean
6.3.5 Islamic pottery
8 Environmental issues in production
9 Other usages
10 See also
13 Further reading
14 External links
A potter at work in Jaura, Madhya Pradesh, India
Clay ware takes on varying physical characteristics during the making
Greenware refers to unfired objects. At sufficient moisture content,
bodies at this stage are in their most plastic form (they are soft and
malleable, and hence can be easily deformed by handling).
Leather-hard refers to a clay body that has been dried partially. At
this stage the clay object has approximately 15% moisture content.
Clay bodies at this stage are very firm and only slightly pliable.
Trimming and handle attachment often occurs at the leather-hard state.
Bone-dry refers to clay bodies when they reach a moisture content at
or near 0%. At that moisture level, the item is ready to be bisque
Bisque refers to the clay after the object is shaped to the
desired form and fired in the kiln for the first time, known as
"bisque fired" or "biscuit fired". This firing changes the clay body
in several ways. Mineral components of the clay body will undergo
chemical changes that will change the colour of the clay.
Glaze fired is the final stage of some pottery making. A glaze may be
applied to the bisque form and the object can be decorated in several
ways. After this the object is "glazed fired", which causes the glaze
material to melt, then adhere to the object. The glaze firing will
also harden the body still more as chemical processes can continue to
occur in the body.
Clay bodies and mineral contents
Preparation of clay for pottery in India
There are several materials that are referred to as clay. The
properties which make them different include: Plasticity, the
malleability of the body; the extent to which they will absorb water
after firing; and shrinkage, the extent of reduction in size of a body
as water is removed. Different clay bodies also differ in the way in
which they respond when fired in the kiln. A clay body can be
decorated before or after firing. Prior to some shaping processes,
clay must be prepared. Each of these different clays are composed of
different types and amounts of minerals that determine the
characteristics of resulting pottery. There can be regional variations
in the properties of raw materials used for the production of pottery,
and this can lead to wares that are unique in character to a locality.
It is common for clays and other materials to be mixed to produce clay
bodies suited to specific purposes. A common component of clay bodies
is the mineral kaolinite. Other mineral compounds in the clay may act
as fluxes which lower the vitrification temperature of bodies.
Following is a list of different types of clay used for pottery.
Kaolin, is sometimes referred to as
China clay because it was first
used in China. Used for porcelain.
Ball clay An extremely plastic, fine grained sedimentary clay, which
may contain some organic matter. Small amounts can be added to
porcelain to increase plasticity.
Fire clay A clay having a slightly lower percentage of fluxes than
kaolin, but usually quite plastic. It is highly heat resistant form of
clay which can be combined with other clays to increase the firing
temperature and may be used as an ingredient to make stoneware type
Stoneware clay Suitable for creating stoneware. This clay has many of
the characteristics between fire clay and ball clay, having finer
grain, like ball clay but is more heat resistant like fire clays.
Common red clay and
Shale clay have vegetable and ferric oxide
impurities which make them useful for bricks, but are generally
unsatisfactory for pottery except under special conditions of a
Bentonite An extremely plastic clay which can be added in small
quantities to short clay to increase the plasticity.
Methods of shaping
A man shapes pottery as it turns on a wheel. (Cappadocia, Turkey)
Pottery can be shaped by a range of methods that include:
Hand-building. This is the earliest forming method. Wares can be
constructed by hand from coils of clay, combining flat slabs of clay,
or pinching solid balls of clay or some combination of these. Parts of
hand-built vessels are often joined together with the aid of slip, an
aqueous suspension of clay body and water. A clay body can be
decorated before or after firing. Prior to some shaping processes,
clay must be prepared such as tablewares although some studio potters
find hand-building more conducive to create one-of-a-kind works of
A potter shapes a piece of pottery on an electric-powered potter's
Classic potter's kick wheel in Erfurt, Germany
The potter's wheel. In a process called "throwing" (coming from the
Old English word thrawan which means to twist or turn,) a ball of
clay is placed in the centre of a turntable, called the wheel-head,
which the potter rotates with a stick, with foot power or with a
variable-speed electric motor.
During the process of throwing, the wheel rotates while the solid ball
of soft clay is pressed, squeezed and pulled gently upwards and
outwards into a hollow shape. The first step of pressing the rough
ball of clay downward and inward into perfect rotational symmetry is
called centring the clay—a most important skill to master before the
next steps: opening (making a centred hollow into the solid ball of
clay), flooring (making the flat or rounded bottom inside the pot),
throwing or pulling (drawing up and shaping the walls to an even
thickness), and trimming or turning (removing excess clay to refine
the shape or to create a foot).
Considerable skill and experience are required to throw pots of an
acceptable standard and, while the ware may have high artistic merit,
the reproducibility of the method is poor. Because of its inherent
limitations, throwing can only be used to create wares with radial
symmetry on a vertical axis. These can then be altered by impressing,
bulging, carving, fluting, and incising. In addition to the potter's
hands these techniques can use tools, including paddles, anvils &
ribs, and those specifically for cutting or piercing such as knives,
fluting tools, needle tools and wires. Thrown pieces can be further
modified by the attachment of handles, lids, feet and spouts.
Granulate pressing: As the name suggests, this is the operation of
shaping pottery by pressing clay in a semi-dry and granulated
condition in a mould. The clay is pressed into the mould by a porous
die through which water is pumped at high pressure. The granulated
clay is prepared by spray-drying to produce a fine and free-flowing
material having a moisture content of between about 5 and 6 per cent.
Granulate pressing, also known as dust pressing, is widely used in the
manufacture of ceramic tiles and, increasingly, of plates.
Injection moulding: This is a shape-forming process adapted for the
tableware industry from the method long established for the forming of
thermoplastic and some metal components. It has been called
Porcelain Injection Moulding, or PIM. Suited to the mass
production of complex-shaped articles, one significant advantage of
the technique is that it allows the production of a cup, including the
handle, in a single process, and thereby eliminates the handle-fixing
operation and produces a stronger bond between cup and handle. The
feed to the mould die is a mix of approximately 50 to 60 percent
unfired body in powder form, together with 40 to 50 percent organic
additives composed of binders, lubricants and plasticisers. The
technique is not as widely used as other shaping methods.
Jiggering and jolleying: These operations are carried out on the
potter's wheel and allow the time taken to bring wares to a
standardized form to be reduced. Jiggering is the operation of
bringing a shaped tool into contact with the plastic clay of a piece
under construction, the piece itself being set on a rotating plaster
mould on the wheel. The jigger tool shapes one face while the mould
shapes the other. Jiggering is used only in the production of flat
wares, such as plates, but a similar operation, jolleying, is used in
the production of hollow-wares such as cups. Jiggering and jolleying
have been used in the production of pottery since at least the 18th
century. In large-scale factory production, jiggering and jolleying
are usually automated, which allows the operations to be carried out
by semi-skilled labour.
Shaping on a potter's kick wheel; Gülşehir, Turkey
A potter shapes a piece of pottery on an electric-powered potter's
wheel; Shiraz, Iran
Roller-head machine: This machine is for shaping wares on a rotating
mould, as in jiggering and jolleying, but with a rotary shaping tool
replacing the fixed profile. The rotary shaping tool is a shallow cone
having the same diameter as the ware being formed and shaped to the
desired form of the back of the article being made. Wares may in this
way be shaped, using relatively unskilled labour, in one operation at
a rate of about twelve pieces per minute, though this varies with the
size of the articles being produced. Developed in the UK just after
World War II by the company Service Engineers, roller-heads were
quickly adopted by manufacturers around the world; they remain the
dominant method for producing flatware.
Pressure casting: Specially developed polymeric materials allow a
mould to be subject to application external pressures of up to 4.0
MPa–so much higher than slip casting in plaster moulds where the
capillary forces correspond to a pressure of around 0.1 – 0.2 MPa.
The high pressure leads to much faster casting rates and, hence,
faster production cycles. Furthermore, the application of high
pressure air through the polymeric moulds upon demoulding the cast
means a new casting cycle can be started immediately in the same
mould, unlike plaster moulds which require lengthy drying times. The
polymeric materials have much greater durability than plaster and,
therefore, it is possible to achieve shaped products with better
dimensional tolerances and much longer mould life. Pressure casting
was developed in the 1970s for the production of sanitaryware
although, more recently, it has been applied to
RAM pressing: This is used to shape ware by pressing a bat of prepared
clay body into a required shape between two porous moulding plates.
After pressing, compressed air is blown through the porous mould
plates to release the shaped wares.
Slipcasting: This ideally suited to the making of wares that cannot be
formed by other methods of shaping. A slip, made by mixing clay body
with water, is poured into a highly absorbent plaster mould. Water
from the slip is absorbed into the mould leaving a layer of clay body
covering its internal surfaces and taking its internal shape. Excess
slip is poured out of the mould, which is then split open and the
moulded object removed.
Slipcasting is widely used in the production
of sanitary wares and is also used for making smaller articles, such
as intricately detailed figurines.
Decorating and glazing
Contemporary pottery from the State of Hidalgo, Mexico
Italian red earthenware vase covered with a mottled pale blue glaze
Pottery may be decorated in many different ways. Some decoration can
be done before or after the firing.
Painting has been used since early prehistoric times, and can be very
elaborate. The painting is often applied to pottery that has been
fired once, and may then be overlaid with a glaze afterwards. Many
pigments change colour when fired, and the painter must allow for
Ceramic glaze Perhaps the most common form of decoration, that also
serves as protection to the pottery, by being tougher and keeping
liquid from penetrating the pottery. Glaze may be clear, especially
over painting, or coloured and opaque. There is more detail in the
Pottery vessels may be decorated by shallow carving of the
clay body, typically with a knife or similar instrument used on the
wheel. This is common in Chinese porcelain of the classic periods.
Burnishing the surface of pottery wares may be burnished prior to
firing by rubbing with a suitable instrument of wood, steel or stone
to produce a polished finish that survives firing. It is possible to
produce very highly polished wares when fine clays are used or when
the polishing is carried out on wares that have been partially dried
and contain little water, though wares in this condition are extremely
fragile and the risk of breakage is high.
Terra Sigillata is an ancient form of decorating ceramics that was
first developed in Ancient Greece.
Additives can be worked into the clay body prior to forming, to
produce desired effects in the fired wares. Coarse additives such as
sand and grog (fired clay which has been finely ground) are sometimes
used to give the final product a required texture. Contrasting
coloured clays and grogs are sometimes used to produce patterns in the
finished wares. Colourants, usually metal oxides and carbonates, are
added singly or in combination to achieve a desired colour.
Combustible particles can be mixed with the body or pressed into the
surface to produce texture.
Lithography, also called litho, although the alternative names of
transfer print or "decal" are also common. These are used to apply
designs to articles. The litho comprises three layers: the colour, or
image, layer which comprises the decorative design; the cover coat, a
clear protective layer, which may incorporate a low-melting glass; and
the backing paper on which the design is printed by screen printing or
lithography. There are various methods of transferring the design
while removing the backing-paper, some of which are suited to machine
Banding is the application by hand or by machine of a band of colour
to the edge of a plate or cup. Also known as "lining", this operation
is often carried out on a potter's wheel.
Agateware is named after its resemblance to the quartz mineral agate
which has bands or layers of colour that are blended together,
agatewares are made by blending clays of differing colours together
but not mixing them to the extent that they lose their individual
identities. The wares have a distinctive veined or mottled appearance.
The term "agateware" is used to describe such wares in the United
Kingdom; in Japan the term "neriage" is used and in China, where such
things have been made since at least the Tang Dynasty, they are called
"marbled" wares. Great care is required in the selection of clays to
be used for making agatewares as the clays used must have matching
thermal movement characteristics.
An ancient Armenian urn
Engobe: This is a clay slip, that is used to coat the surface of
pottery, usually before firing. Its purpose is often decorative though
it can also be used to mask undesirable features in the clay to which
it is applied. Engobe slip may be applied by painting or by dipping to
provide a uniform, smooth, coating. Engobe has been used by potters
from pre-historic times until the present day and is sometimes
combined with sgraffito decoration, where a layer of engobe is
scratched through to reveal the colour of the underlying clay. With
care it is possible to apply a second coat of engobe of a different
colour to the first and to incise decoration through the second coat
to expose the colour of the underlying coat. Engobes used in this way
often contain substantial amounts of silica, sometimes approaching the
composition of a glaze.
Gold: Decoration with gold is used on some high quality ware.
Different methods exist for its application, including:
Best gold – a suspension of gold powder in essential oils mixed with
a flux and a mercury salt extended. This can be applied by a painting
technique. From the kiln, the decoration is dull and requires
burnishing to reveal the full colour
Acid Gold – a form of gold decoration developed in the early 1860s
at the English factory of Mintons Ltd, Stoke-on-Trent. The glazed
surface is etched with diluted hydrofluoric acid prior to application
of the gold. The process demands great skill and is used for the
decoration only of ware of the highest class.
Bright Gold – consists of a solution of gold sulphoresinate together
with other metal resonates and a flux. The name derives from the
appearance of the decoration immediately after removal from the kiln
as it requires no burnishing
Mussel Gold – an old method of gold decoration. It was made by
rubbing together gold leaf, sugar and salt, followed by washing to
Two panels of earthenware tiles painted with polychrome glazes over a
white glaze. Iran. First half of the 19th century.
Glaze is a glassy coating on pottery, the primary purposes of which
are decoration and protection. One important use of glaze is to render
porous pottery vessels impermeable to water and other liquids. Glaze
may be applied by dusting the unfired composition over the ware or by
spraying, dipping, trailing or brushing on a thin slurry composed of
the unfired glaze and water. The colour of a glaze after it has been
fired may be significantly different from before firing. To prevent
glazed wares sticking to kiln furniture during firing, either a small
part of the object being fired (for example, the foot) is left
unglazed or, alternatively, special refractory "spurs" are used as
supports. These are removed and discarded after the firing.
Some specialised glazing techniques include:
Salt-glazing, where common salt is introduced to the kiln during the
firing process. The high temperatures cause the salt to volatize,
depositing it on the surface of the ware to react with the body to
form a sodium aluminosilicate glaze. In the 17th and 18th centuries,
salt-glazing was used in the manufacture of domestic pottery. Now,
except for use by some studio potters, the process is obsolete. The
last large-scale application before its demise in the face of
environmental clean air restrictions was in the production of
Ash glazing – ash from the combustion of plant matter has been used
as the flux component of glazes. The source of the ash was generally
the combustion waste from the fuelling of kilns although the potential
of ash derived from arable crop wastes has been investigated. Ash
glazes are of historical interest in the Far East although there are
reports of small-scale use in other locations such as the Catawba
Pottery in the United States. They are now limited to small
numbers of studio potters who value the unpredictability arising from
the variable nature of the raw material.
Underglaze decoration (in the manner of many blue and white wares).
Underglaze may be applied by brush strokes, air brush, or by pouring
the underglaze into the mold, covering the inside, creating a swirling
effect, then the mold is filled with slip.
Pottery firing mound in Kalabougou, Mali
A kiln at a pottery in Bardon Mill, UK
Firing produces irreversible changes in the body. It is only after
firing that the article or material is pottery. In lower-fired
pottery, the changes include sintering, the fusing together of coarser
particles in the body at their points of contact with each other. In
the case of porcelain, where different materials and higher
firing-temperatures are used, the physical, chemical and mineralogical
properties of the constituents in the body are greatly altered. In all
cases, the object of firing is to permanently harden the wares and the
firing regime must be appropriate to the materials used to make them.
As a rough guide, modern earthenwares are normally fired at
temperatures in the range of about 1,000°C (1,830 °F) to
1,200 °C (2,190 °F); stonewares at between about
1,100 °C (2,010 °F) to 1,300 °C (2,370 °F);
and porcelains at between about 1,200 °C (2,190 °F) to
1,400 °C (2,550 °F). Historically, reaching high
temperatures was a long-lasting challenge, and earthenware can be
fired effectively as low as 600°C, achievable in primitive pit
Firing pottery can be done using a variety of methods, with a kiln
being the usual firing method. Both the maximum temperature and the
duration of firing influences the final characteristics of the
ceramic. Thus, the maximum temperature within a kiln is often held
constant for a period of time to soak the wares to produce the
maturity required in the body of the wares.
The atmosphere within a kiln during firing can affect the appearance
of the finished wares. An oxidising atmosphere, produced by allowing
air to enter the kiln, can cause the oxidation of clays and glazes. A
reducing atmosphere, produced by limiting the flow of air into the
kiln, or burning coal rather than wood, can strip oxygen from the
surface of clays and glazes. This can affect the appearance of the
wares being fired and, for example, some glazes containing iron fire
brown in an oxidising atmosphere, but green in a reducing atmosphere.
The atmosphere within a kiln can be adjusted to produce complex
effects in glaze.
Kilns may be heated by burning wood, coal and gas or by electricity.
When used as fuels, coal and wood can introduce smoke, soot and ash
into the kiln which can affect the appearance of unprotected wares.
For this reason, wares fired in wood- or coal-fired kilns are often
placed in the kiln in saggars, lidded ceramic boxes, to protect them.
Modern kilns powered by gas or electricity are cleaner and more easily
controlled than older wood- or coal-fired kilns and often allow
shorter firing times to be used. In a Western adaptation of
Raku ware firing, wares are removed from the kiln
while hot and smothered in ashes, paper or woodchips which produces a
distinctive carbonised appearance. This technique is also used in
Malaysia in creating traditional labu sayung.
In Mali, a firing mound is used rather than a brick or stone kiln.
Unfired pots are first brought to the place where a mound will be
built, customarily by the women and girls of the village. The mound's
foundation is made by placing sticks on the ground, then:
[...]pots are positioned on and amid the branches and then grass is
piled high to complete the mound. Although the mound contains the pots
of many women, who are related through their husbands' extended
families, each women is responsible for her own or her immediate
family's pots within the mound.
When a mound is completed and the ground around has been swept clean
of residual combustible material, a senior potter lights the fire. A
handful of grass is lit and the woman runs around the circumference of
the mound touching the burning torch to the dried grass. Some mounds
are still being constructed as others are already burning.
Ceramic art § History
Earliest known ceramics are the
Gravettian figurines that date to
29,000 to 25,000 BC.
A great part of the history of pottery is prehistoric, part of past
pre-literate cultures. Therefore, much of this history can only be
found among the artifacts of archaeology. Because pottery is so
durable, pottery and sherds of pottery survive from millennia at
Before pottery becomes part of a culture, several conditions must
generally be met.
First, there must be usable clay available. Archaeological sites where
the earliest pottery was found were near deposits of readily available
clay that could be properly shaped and fired.
China has large deposits
of a variety of clays, which gave them an advantage in early
development of fine pottery. Many countries have large deposits of a
variety of clays.
Second, it must be possible to heat the pottery to temperatures that
will achieve the transformation from raw clay to ceramic. Methods to
reliably create fires hot enough to fire pottery did not develop until
late in the development of cultures.
Third, the potter must have time available to prepare, shape and fire
the clay into pottery. Even after control of fire was achieved, humans
did not seem to develop pottery until a sedentary life was achieved.
It has been hypothesized that pottery was developed only after humans
established agriculture, which led to permanent settlements. However,
the oldest known pottery is from
China and dates to 20,000 BC, at the
height of the ice age, long before the beginnings of agriculture.
Fourth, there must be a sufficient need for pottery in order to
justify the resources required for its production.
Jōmon pottery vessel reconstructed from fragments
(10,000–8,000 BC), Tokyo National Museum, Japan
Methods of forming: Hand-shaping was the earliest method used to form
vessels. This included the combination of pinching and coiling.
Firing: The earliest method for firing pottery wares was the use of
bonfires Pit fired pottery. Firing times were short but the
peak-temperatures achieved in the fire could be high, perhaps in the
region of 900 °C (1,650 °F), and were reached very
Clay: Early potters used whatever clay was available to them in their
geographic vicinity. However, the lowest quality common red clay was
adequate for low-temperature fires used for the earliest pots. Clays
tempered with sand, grit, crushed shell or crushed pottery were often
used to make bonfire-fired ceramics because they provided an open-body
texture that allowed water and other volatile components of the clay
to escape freely. The coarser particles in the clay also acted to
restrain shrinkage during drying, and hence reduce the risk of
Form: In the main, early bonfire-fired wares were made with rounded
bottoms to avoid sharp angles that might be susceptible to cracking.
Glazing: the earliest pots were not glazed.
The potter's wheel was invented in
Mesopotamia sometime between 6,000
and 4,000 BC (Ubaid period) and revolutionised pottery production.
Biscuit moulds were used to a limited extent as early as the 5th and
6th century BC by the Etruscans and more extensively by the
Slipcasting, a popular method for shaping irregular shaped articles.
It was first practised, to a limited extent, in
China as early as the
Transition to kilns: The earliest intentionally constructed were
pit-kilns or trench-kilns—holes dug in the ground and covered with
fuel. Holes in the ground provided insulation and resulted in better
control over firing.
Kilns: Pit fire methods were adequate for creating simple earthenware,
but other pottery types needed more sophisticated kilns (see below
History of pottery types
Main article: Earthenware
Archaeologist cleaning an early mediaeval pottery sherd from Chodlik,
The earliest forms of pottery were made from clays that were fired at
low temperatures in pit-fires or in open bonfires. They were hand
formed and undecorated. Because the biscuit form of earthenware is
porous, it has limited utility for storage of liquids. However,
earthenware has a continuous history from the
Neolithic period to
today. It can be made from a wide variety of clays. The development of
ceramic glaze which makes it impermeable makes it a popular and
practical form of pottery making. The addition of decoration has
evolved throughout its history.
Main article: Stoneware
The earliest examples of stoneware have been dated to 1900 BC in the
Indus Valley Civilization. Glazed
Stoneware was being created as
early as the 15th century BC in China. This achievement coincided with
kilns that could be fired at higher temperatures.
Main article: Porcelain
Porcelain is made by heating materials, generally including kaolin, in
a kiln to temperatures between 1,200 and 1,400 °C (2,200 and
2,600 °F). The toughness, strength and translucence of
porcelain, relative to other types of pottery, arises mainly from
vitrification and the formation of the mineral mullite within the body
at these high temperatures.
Porcelain was first made in China; the date is somewhat controversial
and depends on the definition used. It was certainly perfected by the
Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906), and was being exported.
Porcelain was also
made in Korea and in Japan from the end of the 16th century, after
suitable kaolin was located in those countries. It was not made
effectively outside East Asia until the 18th century.
History by region
A sherd or fragment of a vessel, from 18,000 BC. Found in Xianrendong
cave in Jiangxi, China.
The earliest-known ceramic objects are
Gravettian figurines such as
those discovered at Dolní Věstonice in the modern-day Czech
Venus of Dolní Věstonice
Venus of Dolní Věstonice is a Venus figurine, a
statuette of a nude female figure dated to 29,000–25,000 BC
The earliest pottery vessels date back to 18,000 BC and were
discovered in Xianrendong cave in Jiangxi, China. The pottery
may have been used as cookware. Other early pottery vessels
include those excavated from the
Yuchanyan Cave in southern China,
dated from 16,000 BC, and those found in the Amur River basin in
the Russian Far East, dated from 14,000 BC.
The Odai Yamamoto I site, belonging to the
Jōmon period, currently
has the oldest pottery in Japan. Excavations in 1998 uncovered
earthenware fragments which have been dated as early as 14,500 BC.
The term "Jōmon" means "cord-marked" in Japanese. This refers to the
markings made on the vessels and figures using sticks with cords
during their production. Recent research has elucidated how Jōmon
pottery was used by its creators.
It appears that pottery was independently developed in Sub-Saharan
Africa during the 10th millennium BC, with findings dating to at least
9,400 BC and in South America during the 10,000s BC. The
Malian finds date to the same period as similar finds from East Asia
– the triangle between Siberia,
China and Japan – and are
associated in both regions to the same climatic changes (at the end of
the ice age new grassland develops, enabling hunter-gatherers to
expand their habitat), met independently by both cultures with similar
developments: the creation of pottery for the storage of wild cereals
(pearl millet), and that of small arrowheads for hunting small game
typical of grassland. Alternatively, the creation of pottery in
the case of the Incipient
Jōmon civilisation could be due to the
intensive exploitation of freshwater and marine organisms by late
glacial foragers, who started developing ceramic containers for their
Far East Asia
Chinese ceramics and
Sherds have been found in
China and Japan from a period between 12,000
and perhaps as long as 18,000 years ago. As of 2012, the
earliest pottery found anywhere in the world, dating to 20,000 to
19,000 years before the present, was found at Xianrendong
Cave in the
Jiangxi province of China. In Japan, the
Jōmon period has a
long history of development of
Pottery which was characterized
by impressions of rope on the surface of the pottery created by
pressing rope into the clay before firing. Glazed
Stoneware was being
created as early as the 15th century BC in China.
Porcelain became a
renowned Chinese export during the
Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906) and
subsequent dynasties. Korean potters produced porcelain as early
as the 14th century AD. Koreans brought the art of porcelain to
Japan in the 17th century AD.
Fragments of concave ceramic vessels dating from around 20,000 years
ago were discovered in
China by a study group consisting of Ofer
Bar-Yosef, in 2012, and were probably used for cooking food.
The secret of making such porcelain was sought in the Islamic world
and later in Europe when examples were imported from the East. Many
attempts were made to imitate it in Italy and France. However it was
not produced outside of the Orient until 1709 in Germany.
A potter with his pottery wheel, Indian Subcontinent (1910)
Pottery was in use in South Asia dating back to prehistoric times,
including areas now forming
Pakistan and northwest India, during the
Mehrgarh Period II (5,500-4,800 BC) and Merhgarh Period III
(4,800-3,500 BC), known as the ceramic
Neolithic and chalcolithic.
Pottery, including items known as the ed-Dur vessels, originated in
regions of the Saraswati River /
Indus River and have been found in a
number of sites in the Indus Civilization.
Persian pottery from the city of Isfahan, Iran, 17th century
The earliest history of pottery production in the Near East can be
divided into four periods, namely: the
Hassuna period (7000–6500
BC), the Halaf period (6500–5500 BC), the
Ubaid period (5500–4000
BC), and the Uruk period (4000–3100 BC).
Pottery making began in the
Fertile Crescent from the 7th millennium
BC. The earliest forms, which were found at the
Hassuna site, were
hand formed from slabs, undecorated, unglazed low-fired pots made from
reddish-brown clays. Within the next millennium, wares were
decorated with elaborate painted designs and natural forms, incising
The invention of the potter's wheel in
Mesopotamia sometime between
6000 and 4000 BC (Ubaid period) revolutionized pottery production.
Newer kiln designs could fire wares to 1,050 °C (1,920 °F)
to 1,200 °C (2,190 °F) which enabled new possibilities and
new preparation of clays. Production was now carried out by small
groups of potters for small cities, rather than individuals making
wares for a family. The shapes and range of uses for ceramics and
pottery expanded beyond simple vessels to store and carry to
specialized cooking utensils, pot stands and rat traps. As the
region developed, new organizations and political forms, pottery
became more elaborate and varied. Some wares were made using moulds,
allowing for increased production for the needs of the growing
populations. Glazing was commonly used and pottery was more
Greek red-figure vase in the krater shape, between 470 and 460 BC, by
the Altamura Painter
Main articles: Minoan pottery,
Pottery of ancient Greece, and Ancient
Civilization developed concurrently with the
Fertile Crescent in the
ancient Mediterranean islands around Greece from about 3200 to 1000 BC
and carried to
Ancient Greece and
Ancient Rome that is considered the
Classical era in the Western world. The arts of these cultures
eventually became a hallmark for Europe and the New World.
Minoan pottery was characterized by elaborate painted decoration with
natural themes. The classical Greek culture began to emerge around
1000 BC featuring a variety of well crafted pottery which now included
the human form as a decorating motif. The pottery wheel was now in
regular use. Although glazing was known to these potters, it was not
widely used. Instead, a more porous clay slip was used for decoration.
A wide range of shapes for different uses developed early and remained
essentially unchanged during the Greek history.
In the Mediterranean, during the
Greek Dark Ages
Greek Dark Ages (1100–800 BC),
amphoras and other pottery were decorated with geometric designs such
as squares, circles and lines. In the
Chalcolithic period in
Mesopotamia, Halafian pottery achieved a level of technical competence
and sophistication, not seen until the later developments of Greek
pottery with Corinthian and Attic ware. Fine
Etruscan pottery was
heavily influenced by
Greek pottery and often imported Greek potters
Ancient Roman pottery
Ancient Roman pottery started by copying Greek and
Etruscan styles but soon developed a style of its own. The
Samian ware of the Early
Roman Empire was copied by
regional potters throughout the Empire.
Tajine potter, making tajines
Spherical Hanging Ornament, 1575-1585, Ottoman Period. Brooklyn
Main article: Islamic pottery
Islamic pottery followed the forms of the regions which the
Muslims conquered. Eventually, however, there was cross-fertilization
between the regions. This was most notable in the Chinese influences
on Islamic pottery. Trade between
China and Islam took place via the
system of trading posts over the lengthy Silk Road. Islamic nations
imported stoneware and later porcelain from China.
China imported the
Cobalt blue from the Islamic ruled
Persia to decorate
their blue and white porcelain, which they then exported to the
Islamic art contributed to a lasting pottery form identified
Andalucia (Islamic Spain). Unique Islamic forms
were also developed, including fritware, lusterware and specialized
glazes like tin-glazing, which led to the development of the popular
One major emphasis in ceramic development in the Muslim world was the
use of tile and decorative tilework.
A potter at work, 1605
Main article: Linear
The early inhabitants of Europe developed pottery at about the same
time as in the Near East, circa 5500–4500 BC. These cultures and
their pottery were eventually shaped by new cultural influences and
technology with the invasions of
Ancient Rome and later by Islam. The
Renaissance art of Europe was a melding of the art of Classical era
and Islamic art.
Pottery in Székely Land, in Romania
Main article: Ceramics of indigenous peoples of the Americas
Most evidence points to an independent development of pottery in the
Native American cultures, starting with their Archaic Era (3500–2000
BC), and into their Formative period (2000 BC – AD 200). These
cultures did not develop the stoneware, porcelain or glazes found in
the Old World.
In 2007, Swiss archaeologists discovered pieces of the oldest pottery
in Africa at
Ounjougou in Central Mali, dating back to at least 9,500
BC. The relationship of the introduction of pot-making in many
parts of Sub-Saharan Africa with the spread of
Bantu languages has
been long recognized, although the details remain controversial and
awaiting further research, and no consensus has been reached.
Northern Africa includes Egypt, which had several distinct phases of
development in pottery. During the early Mediterranean civilizations
of the fertile crescent,
Egypt developed a unique non-clay-based
ceramic which has come to be called Egyptian faience.[note 1]
The other major phase came during the
Umayyad Caliphate of Islam,
Egypt was a link between early center of Islam in the Near East and
Iberia which led to the impressive style of pottery.
It is, however, still valuable to look into pottery as an
archaeological record of potential interaction between peoples,
especially in areas where little or no written history exists. Because
Africa is primarily heavy in oral traditions, and thus lacks a large
body of written historical sources, pottery has a valuable
archaeological role. When pottery is placed within the context of
linguistic and migratory patterns, it becomes an even more prevalent
category of social artifact. As proposed by Olivier P. Gosselain,
it is possible to understand ranges of cross-cultural interaction by
looking closely at the chaîne opératoire of ceramic production.
The methodologies used to produce pottery in early Sub-Saharan Africa
are divisible into three categories: techniques visible to the eye
(decoration, firing and post-firing techniques), techniques related to
the materials (selection or processing of clay, etc.), and techniques
of molding or fashioning the clay. We can use these three
categories to consider the implications of the reoccurrence of a
particular sort of pottery in different areas. Generally, the
techniques that are easily visible (the first category of those
mentioned above) are thus readily imitated, and may indicate a more
distant connection between groups, such as trade in the same market or
even relatively close proximity in settlements. Techniques that
require more studied replication (i.e., the selection of clay and the
fashioning of clay) may indicate a closer connection between peoples,
as these methods are usually only transmissible between potters and
those otherwise directly involved in production. Such a
relationship requires the ability of the involved parties to
communicate effectively, implying pre-existing norms of contact or a
shared language between the two. Thus, the patterns of technical
diffusion in pot-making that are visible via archaeological findings
also reveal patterns in societal interaction.
Melanesia and Micronesia
Pottery has been found in archaeological sites across the islands of
Oceania. It is attributed to an ancient archaeological culture called
the Lapita. Another form of pottery called Plainware is found
throughout sites of Oceania. The relationship between
and Plainware is not altogether clear.
Indigenous Australians never developed pottery. After
Europeans came to Australia and settled, they found deposits of clay
which were analysed by English potters as excellent for making
pottery. Less than 20 years later, Europeans came to Australia and
began creating pottery. Since then, ceramic manufacturing,
mass-produced pottery and studio pottery have flourished in
Pottery found at Çatal Höyük—sixth millennium BC
The study of pottery can help to provide an insight into past
Pottery is durable, and fragments, at least, often survive
long after artefacts made from less-durable materials have decayed
past recognition. Combined with other evidence, the study of pottery
artefacts is helpful in the development of theories on the
organisation, economic condition and the cultural development of the
societies that produced or acquired pottery. The study of pottery may
also allow inferences to be drawn about a culture's daily life,
religion, social relationships, attitudes towards neighbours,
attitudes to their own world and even the way the culture understood
Chronologies based on pottery are often essential for dating
non-literate cultures and are often of help in the dating of historic
cultures as well. Trace-element analysis, mostly by neutron
activation, allows the sources of clay to be accurately identified and
the thermoluminescence test can be used to provide an estimate of the
date of last firing. Examining fired pottery shards from prehistory,
scientists learned that during high-temperature firing, iron materials
in clay record the exact state of Earth's magnetic field at that exact
Environmental issues in production
A potter in Maramureș County describes his materials (in Romanian and
Pots in Punjab, Pakistan
Although many of the environmental effects of pottery production have
existed for millennia, some of these have been amplified with modern
technology and scales of production. The principal factors for
consideration fall into two categories: (a) effects on workers, and
(b) effects on the general environment. Within the effects on workers,
chief impacts are indoor air quality, sound levels and possible
over-illumination. Regarding the general environment, factors of
interest are fuel consumption, off-site water pollution, air pollution
and disposal of hazardous materials.
Historically, "plumbism" (lead poisoning) was a significant health
concern to those glazing pottery. This was recognised at least as
early as the nineteenth century, and the first legislation in the
United Kingdom to limit pottery workers' exposure was introduced in
1899. While the risk to those working in ceramics is now much
reduced, it can still not be ignored. With respect to indoor air
quality, workers can be exposed to fine particulate matter, carbon
monoxide and certain heavy metals. The greatest health risk is the
potential to develop silicosis from the long-term exposure to
crystalline silica. Proper ventilation can reduce the risks, and the
first legislation in the United Kingdom to govern ventilation was
introduced in 1899. Another, more recent, study at Laney College,
Oakland, California suggests that all these factors can be controlled
in a well-designed workshop environment.
The English city of
Stoke-on-Trent is widely known as "The Potteries"
because of the large number of pottery factories or, colloquially,
"Pot Banks." It was one of the first industrial cities of the modern
era where, as early as 1785, two hundred pottery manufacturers
employed 20,000 workers. For the same reason, the largest football
club in the city is known as "The Potters."
Glossary of pottery terms
American art pottery
Ceramics of indigenous peoples of the Americas
Chinese ceramics including porcelain
History of ceramic art
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