Pottery in Antiquity

A piece of pottery from the Uruk period in Mesopotamia (3500-2800 BCE).

In his article “Pottery in Antiquity,” Cristian Violatti examines why pottery was so widespread among different cultures, the techniques used to create early pottery, and what the complexity of those techniques suggests for societies at the time.

Pottery was not invented at one location and then spread to other cultures; rather, it was discovered by multiple societies, independent of one another, at various locations and in different periods of time. This is not surprising since the dominant material used to create pottery is clay, which is “abundant, cheap, and adaptable,” making it a perfect material for early societies to use to their benefit. Although there is not a direct correlation between pottery-making and an agricultural lifestyle, the two are closely related in history. Violatti claims that pottery and agriculture tend to correspond historically due to the need for “durable and strong vessels” to store harvests.

Pottery fragments can be analyzed on a chemical level to discover what kind of temperature they were exposed to during creation. Historians can then gain some insight into the kind of technologies a society implemented in the creation of pottery, and, as a result, the level of sophistication of other technologies that the society may have used. Furthermore, the “shape, type of surface, the colours, drawing patterns, and decorative styles” of pottery can give insight into the development of the arts in various societies. Location is also a telling factor when analysing the development of a society; if a pottery fragment is found far away from the source of its production, it may indicate “trade activity and exchange networks.”

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Additional Resources:

“History of Pottery – Clay Pottery”

This article by Dr. Karen Carr briefly explores the origins of pottery in different regions. Dr. Carr claims that one of the reasons that pottery started to be made, both in East Asia and in the Americas, could have been to preserve fish. The article also goes into details about the use of the two different types of potter’s wheels. The first of these wheels is called a slow wheel, which West Asian people had begun to use around 3000 BC. The slow wheel consists of a small wooden platform which eliminates the need for the potter to walk around their pot by allowing them to turn the platform instead. The fast wheel is similar to the slow wheel in that it also consists of a platform; the main difference is that the fast wheel pivots on an axle and can be spun using a push or a kick. The majority of potters in Europe, Asia, and North Africa were using the fast wheel by 2000 BC. Each type of wheel incrementally increased the speed of creating pottery, which led to a decrease in pricing as potters were able to make a larger quantity of pots to sell.

Dr. Carr wraps up her article by talking about how pottery was used as a way of constructing social identity, and how technological and economic changes in different societies influence how pottery was made and what materials were used to make it.

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“Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China

This links to a report on the excavation of early pottery in Xianrendong Cave in China, with a focus on the radiocarbon dating and social implications of this pottery.

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3 thoughts on “Pottery in Antiquity”

  1. Nobody really thinks about how much the discovery of ancient pottery from around the Mediterranean has enlightened our understanding of the past. Archaeologists live to find pottery fragments within multiple layers of sediment because they provide us with detailed dates as to when they were created and who lived there at the time. The field has grown and learned so much from ancient pottery that we can now know pinpoint exact town or city locations as to where pieces were manufactured, regardless of where it was originally discovered.

  2. Good post Rae. The fact that pottery making was not invented in one location was discovered by multiple societies, independent of one another suggests that the people were familiar with the technology long before it was shaped into the art of making containers. Your links about the origin of pottery making were also very informative.

  3. Rae,
    This is an excellent post. I have always been intrigued by the stories that different styles of pottery can tell. Pottery spans across a variety of very different cultures and it is important for us to remember that it does not only originate from one place. Pottery has helped us to learn so much about civilizations in the past and I believe it is a very underrated form of technology. Your blog post does it justice!

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