Special thanks to Whitney Smith of Whitney Smith Pottery in Oakland, Calif., for her contributions to this article.
History of Pottery
The oldest known body of pottery dates back 10,000 years, during the Neolithic revolution. Lifestyles in the Middle East and Africa were transitioning from nomadic hunters and gatherers to farmers who put down roots and planted crops. Baskets were useful handicrafts used for gathering, but they couldn't hold liquids. Mind you this was long before hoses or irrigation systems were in the picture, and farmers needed to be able to water their crops. Necessity dictated that it was essential to find a material that was readily available and inexpensive, pliable enough to shape and light enough to carry. Clay fit the bill and was an abundant resource in the region. Early pots were built by stacking rings of clay, which were then smoothed out and fired in a hole in the ground, under a bonfire. These pots were undecorated and expendable -- they were created simply as a means to transport liquids, and sometimes were only used once they were being disposed of.
The Greeks were credited with making pottery an art form, although at the time, potters were still known as craftsmen. Their pots and vases were utilitarian in nature and were mainly created for drinking and pouring, or storing wine and olive oil. But these craftsmen decorated their vessels with characters from Greek mythology and were the first to experiment with adding color by combining the clay with other naturally occurring ingredients, such as ochre and potash.
It's not known exactly when the potter's wheel arrived on the scene, but this was an important development in pottery making. At the beginning of the Bronze Age, around 3000 B.C., potters were using the slow wheel. This was simply a moveable platform that allowed them to turn the pot as they worked, instead of having to get up and walk around it. By the time the next century rolled around, most potters in Europe and Asia were using the fast wheel, which used a platform similar to the slow wheel, except the platform spun on an axle much like a toy top. The potters would start with a lump of clay sitting on the wheel, then gave the wheel a good spin or kick, which enabled them to draw the pot out of the clay through the spinning motion. The fast wheel was a big technological breakthrough, because it made it possible to work quickly and reproduce the same design. The invention of electricity brought us the motorized potter's wheel that we know today.
The next big breakthrough in pottery came about in 600 A.D. during the Han Dynasty in China, when potters began to make porcelain. These delicate and artful pieces, now known as fine china, were created from white kaolin clay combined with ground granite, which was fired at extremely high temperatures. It was very expensive to transport, so potters in West Asia invented lead glazes to mimic the look of porcelain. These glazes were important because not only did they add a decorative element to pottery making, they also made the porous earthenware waterproof. European potters soon followed suit, creating colorful glazes to use in their pottery. Throughout the centuries, pottery has continued to evolve as both a craft and an art.