Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The History of Ceramic and Pottery

March is in the books and April is here. And you know what that means…a new blog theme! This month we will explore Ceramics and Pottery. I’m super excited about this theme. I admire hand thrown pottery and have considered getting my hands dirty. I’m afraid the closest I’ve come is making mud pies as a kid. Before I dive into the history of pottery I have one question.

My burning question when I think of pottery and ceramics, what’s the difference? Yes, that’s how uninformed I am. If you already know, you can skip this paragraph! Pottery is actually a type of Ceramic. The term ‘Ceramic’ refers to anything made with clay and the slow chemical process of clay being heated to 600 degrees C/1112 degrees F causing it to lose its chemically bound water molecules and its ability to be broken down by water. Once this change occurs it can’t be reversed. So, Pottery as we know it is actually a type of Ceramic, as is Earthenware, Terracotta, Porcelain and Stoneware…and technically bricks, bathroom fixtures, electric insulators, tiles, sculptures etc.

So, on to the history lesson.

The earliest pottery discovered dates back to the 11th millennium BC and was found in Japan. That’s the Palaeolithic time period, the Stone Age, when humans grouped together in small bands and subsisted by gathering plants and hunting wild animals. Stone tools were just being invented. Pottery was found in Palestine, Syria and south-eastern Turkey dating back to the Neolithic period, the 8th millennium BC. In Egypt, pottery dating back to 5000 BC were decorated with ostriches, boats and geometric designs. This was all many centuries before the potter’s wheel was invented.
An ancient Egyptian amphora from the later part of the 18th Dynasty. Located inthe Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Image Courtesy of Kallie Szczepanski, Asian History Guide
The potter’s wheel dates back roughly to 3000 BC. When a piece is hand formed it is impossible to create a perfectly round vessel or plate. The solution to this problem is the potter’s wheel, the invention of which was a turning point in the history of ceramic. The true date of the potter’s wheel is unknown. Archeologists believe the development of the potter’s wheel has been a slow progression beginning with a platform the potter was able to turn to easily reach all sides of a piece, rather than walking around it. Discoveries in what was Mesopotamia date a simple revolving wheel in the midst of potter’s equipment back to 3000 BC. This is the first recorded potter’s wheel.

China has a rich history of ceramic wares as well. In Neolithic China, pottery was made by coil building, in which long, thin coils of clay are formed around a flat, circular base and built up to create a shape, which was beaten with a paddle. By 1000 BC vessels were begun using this handbuilt technique then finished on a wheel. In northwestern China, vessels from the Pan-shan culture made from finely textured clay and fired to a buff color then brush painted with mineral pigments date to 2600 BC. Not only did the Chinese create vessels, they also used terracotta to build an army. In 1974 the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang Di, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) was discovered. An imperial legion of more than 6000 life-size soldiers and horses were found buried in military formation in the Emperor’s tomb.
Platoons of clay soldiers buried with China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, to accompany him during his eternal rest
Photographby O. Louis Mazzatenta from NationalGeographic.com
Sculpting and painting ceramics came into fashion as a major art form in classical Greece, dating to 500 BC.  This ceramic took many forms including: the amphora, a tall two-handled storage vessel; the hydria, a three-handled water jug; the lecythus, an oil flask with a long, narrow neck; the cylix, a double-handled drinking cup; the oenochoe, a wine jug; and the crater, a large bowl for mixing wine and water. The decorative paintings on these pieces depict their use and are thought to have been reserved for the wealthy and for ceremony and celebration. Undecorated black pottery was used throughout Greek and Hellenistic times, the forms being related either to those of decorated pottery or to those of metalwork.
Ancient Greek pottery krater, a vessel used to mix water into wine, in the calyx, or flower-shaped, form 
Image Courtesy of Henri Sivonen ©2007
Clearly, the creation and use of ceramic is a commonality shared by the human species on a global scale. Without knowledge or sharing of technology, all of these various cultures developed the concept of combining clay with heat to create ceramic. White porcelain-like ceramic dating back to 1100 AD has been found in Iran and Turkey. Gray stoneware has been found in tombs of the Silla dynasty (300-900 AD) in Korea. Terracotta figures found in Africa date from 400 BC. And south American pottery dates from 3200 BC while Mayan ceramics date to 1500-1000 BC.

In North America the Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley produced painted, modeled and incised ware in the 1st millennium BC. In the Southwestern US, fin pottery was made by the ancestors of the Pueblo peoples, notably the red-on-buff ware of the Hohokam and the polychrome ware of the Anasazi, both adorned with human and animal figures.  The ancient tradition has been carried on into modern Pueblo pottery, notably in the work of Maria Martinez, who is widely known for her burnished black ware.

There is a strong tradition of studio artists working in ceramics in the United States with a significant period of growth from the 1960s to present day. Many fine art and contemporary museums display ceramic pieces as part of the permanent collections. Beatrice Wood and her unique luster-glaze technique and Robert Arneson, an artist of large abstract sculptural works are credited with elevating studio ceramic work to a high art form.

Beatrice Wood, Vessel, 1972-73,
Stoneware, glazed, 5½in. x 4in. x 4in.,
Gift of Donald and Bernice McKenna
to the Santa Monica Museum of Art
Santa Monica, CA

Robert Arneson, Casualty in the Art Realm
Palm Springs Desert Museum
Palm Springs, CA

Throughout the month of April we will introduce you to some amazing AP Team and Etsy ceramic artists. We will explore the different types of clay, the process of throwing a pot (not against the wall), hand shaping, firing, glazing and so much more.

If you're curious and would like to learn more about the terminology of ceramics and pottery, check out Ken Turner Pottery Glossary of Ceramic Terms.

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