By Rochelle Forrester


Ó All Rights Reserved


Publication Date 2006


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One of the consequences of humankind becoming sedentary was the development of pottery. Hunter-gatherers do not use pottery as it is fragile and easily broken when being moved. One of pottery’s major uses is food storage which is of no interest to hunter-gatherers who do not usually store food. With the beginnings of widespread sedentism resulting from the discovery of agriculture the use of pottery became a practical possibility.

Pottery is made principally from clay which is widespread throughout the surface of the earth. The first human use of fired clay seems to have been in the production of Venus figurines during the Upper Paleolithic between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago. This suggests humans probably had enough knowledge to produce pottery long before it was extensively used. The first human use of pottery appears to have been by the Jomon in the area of modern Japan. The Jomon seem to have been semi sedentary hunter-gatherers and to have used pottery as early as 10,500BC. Pottery seems to have been independently invented in North Africa around 8,000BC and in South America around 5,000BC.

It is the particular properties of clay that allow it to be used to manufacture pottery. Clay is plastic in that it will retain any reasonable shape it is moulded into. If water contained in the clay is allowed to evaporate, for example by drying in the sun, the plasticity is lost but the shape of the clay is retained. However if water is later added to the clay the plasticity returns. This meant sun dried pottery could only be used for storing dry products and in climates where humidity and rainfall were low. Egypt and Mesopotamia had such climates and sun dried pottery was used in those places.

The need to produce pottery capable of holding water lead to fire dried pottery. When fire with a heat of over 450°C is applied to clay the clay will lose its plasticity even if it comes in contact with water. Its shape will be permanently retained and such fire dried pottery can be used to store water and to boil water for example in cooking. Temperatures of just over 450°C however only produce earthenware which are porous in that water can slowly percolate through the walls of the vessel. This can have the beneficial effects of cooling the contents of the vessel, or alternatively if this effect is not desired, then the vessel can be glazed, or if heated to a much higher temperature stoneware, which is not porous, may be produced. A glaze is a glass like substance which if applied to a vessel stops water percolating through the walls of a vessel. Stoneware can be produced by mixing the clay with a fusible stone which under high temperatures vitrify and produce a non porous vessel.

The earliest method of manufacturing pottery vessels was to place the clay around the inside of a basket or sack and then placing the vessel in the sun or fire. Moulds were also used in the production of pottery from an early date. The potter’s wheel was a later manufacturing technique which was well established by the first millennium BC.

The earliest decoration done on pottery involved scratching the clay before the pottery was placed in the fire. Pigments were later used on Neolithic pots and colored glazes were used in China and the Persians introduced the use of luster in the 9th century.

The social and cultural effects of the invention of pottery involved the use of improved cooking and food storage techniques. Pottery meant that people were able to steam and boil food which allowed the consumption of new types of food such as leafy vegetables, acorns and shellfish. Soft boiled food could be consumed by people who had lost their teeth such as the elderly. Improved cooking and food storage lead to increased population growth through out the world.

Pottery would not be possible except for the properties of clay which can be moulded into particular shapes which it will retain when dry. If clay and other substances did not have these properties then pottery could not have existed and human social and cultural history would have been different. While the knowledge of how to produce pottery may well have existed before its widespread use, it could only be extensively used by sedentary people. This explains why the widespread use of pottery only occurred after the discovery of agriculture which allowed people to become sedentary.

The way in which pottery did develop was with the simplest forms of pottery being invented before more complex forms were invented. Sun dried pottery and open fired pottery were invented before kiln dried pottery. Earthenware was invented before stoneware, which required higher temperatures than earthenware. Glazed pottery was developed after unglazed pottery as obviously simple pottery must be developed before it can have a glaze added to it. Simple means of manufacturing pottery such as the use of moulds occurred before the use of more complex methods such as the potter’s wheel. The simplest forms of decoration of pottery, such as scratching before firing, were used before more complex methods such as pigments and colored glazes.


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