Pottery History for kids - when did people first start to use clay pots? Greek pottery, Chinese pottery, Roman pottery, Islamic pottery.

Pottery History for Kids

Pottery is dishes, plates, cups, and cooking pots made out of clay. It is a good idea to make dishes and pots out of clay for several reasons. Clay is cheap and easy to get, pretty much anybody can make a useful pot out of it, and you can make it waterproof pretty easily too. Plus it can be made very beautiful, if you know what you are doing. And it is easy to make yours look different from your neighbor's.

People first started making pottery out of clay around 6000 BC, near the beginning of the Neolithic period. They may have begun to make pottery as a way of storing grain safely when they started farming. Probably they had always known how, but just hadn't done it much, the same as planting seeds. In the beginning, pottery was made by just pushing a hole into a ball of clay, or by making a long snake of clay and coiling it up into a pot shape. Many early pots, meant to be used once and thrown away, are nothing more than a large lump of clay that someone socked their fist into, the way you might sock your fist into a catcher's mitt. These were just lightly fired in a fire of dry weeds. The coiled kind of pot was often fired in a hotter fire, probably by being put in an open campfire or bonfire.

By around 3000 BC, at the beginning of the Bronze Age, people had begun to use the slow potter's wheel. This is a little platform made of wood that you build the pot on; you can turn it around so that instead of having to walk around your pot you can sit still and turn the pot around. In the hands of someone who is good at using it, it does make potting a lot faster.

A woman in Mexico digging clay and using a slow wheel to make a pot.

But by 2000 BC, the slow wheel had been almost entirely replaced in Europe and Asia by the fast wheel, which is also a platform, but one which spins on an axle, like a top. You can start it spinning with a push or a kick, and then draw the pot gradually out of the lump of clay. Using the fast wheel, a good potter can make a pot every minute or so, and all of them almost exactly the same. It's much faster than coiling or the slow wheel, and so pots got much cheaper than they had been before. The Indo-Europeans, migrating at this time into Greece and Italy and China, brought the idea of the fast wheel with them.

From the beginning, people used pottery as a way of constructing their social identity, or showing who they were and how they were different from other people. Many of the designs used on pottery were borrowed from cloth, which was also used to identify people of one group or another. Greek pottery is very different from West Asian pottery of the same time, and both of them are different from Egyptian pottery, or Chinese pottery. Etruscan pottery is different too, but similar to Greek pottery in many ways.

The beginning of the Roman Empire saw some big technological and economic changes in the Western pottery industry. First, people began painting pottery red instead of black. Then they began making it in molds instead of painting it. Around the same time, the Phoenicians invented glass-blowing, and this made glass cheap enough to be a serious competitor with pottery. People pretty much stopped making pottery cups, and everyone drank out of glasses. Even a lot of bowls, and little things like perfume containers, were made out of glass.
Also, by about 100 AD, most of the nicer pottery used in the Roman Empire was made in North Africa and shipped by boat all over the Empire, using the sea and the rivers.

The Arab invasion of North Africa around 700 AD ended the North African pottery trade, and after that pottery was locally made again for some time in the West, and not very good. The next great developments in pottery were not in the West but in Sui Dynasty China, where potters began to make porcelain (PORR-se-lenn) cups and pitchers around 700 AD. This gleaming white pottery was popular not only in China but in West Asia too. But it was very expensive in West Asia, because it had to be carried all the way from China on donkeys and camels. So the West Asian potters invented lead glazes, which made ordinary pots look white and shiny. This made a kind of imitation porcelain which was a lot cheaper.

A little later on, European and Chinese potters began using lead glazes too. About 1200 AD, potters of the Yuan dynasty in China began to use different color glazes to create designs on their pots. Chinese pottery was still the best and the most expensive. So West Asian potters also used these colored glazes to imitate Chinese designs, and Europeans used colored glazes to imitate the West Asian designs.

To find out more about the history of pottery, check out these books from Amazon.com or from your library:

The Kids 'N' Clay Ceramics Book, by Kevin Nierman (2000). For kids who want to throw their own pots. Pretty ambitious.

Fired Up!: Making Pottery in Ancient Times, by Rivka Gonen (1993). For kids. Watch out - there are some inaccuracies. Still, it's the best available history of pottery I can find for kids.

Ten Thousand Years of Pottery, by Emmanuel Cooper (2000). Not for kids, but a better account. Continues up to modern times.

Greek pottery
Roman pottery
Etruscan pottery
Islamic pottery
Chinese pottery
Main art page.

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