The art and craft of pottery, also called ceramics, uses clay that has been mixed with water to make it pliable. This clay is then shaped, allowed to dry, and “fired”-baked at very high temperatures.
Clay was probably first used to make religious figures, like fertility goddesses and gods. Eventually, though, people began to make it into containers.
The earliest surviving clay containers have a basketweave-like design on the outside. It’s possible that baskets were used as molds, but it’s also likely that raw clay was simply pressed into a basket as a liner, to keep the basket from leaking. If the basket was left in the sun, the heat would have baked the clay, making it more solid and sturdier. This may have given people the idea that they could make better “baskets” if they formed the objects from clay and then heated them in their cooking fires.
Cooking fires, however, don’t reach very high temperatures. It’s possible to cook food at temperatures no higher than 500°F, but some clay needs more than 2000°F. Pottery baked in cooking fires would not have been very durable. So people developed special ovens, now called kilns, that could generate higher temperatures.
It’s not known for certain when humans first started making pottery; the earliest objects would have been too fragile to survive. The oldest pieces in existence today seem to have been made in Mesopotamia, an area in the Middle East between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at about 5,000 BCE. They were shaped mostly like bells, and decorated with designs that were either pressed into the clay or painted on with watered-down clay.
The ancient Egyptians began using the potter’s wheel about 2,500 BCE. This tool helped them make more symmetrical objects. They also used a slow form of this wheel, which allowed them put more detail into their designs. When using slow wheels they had to work with one hand, though, because the other hand was used to turn the wheel.
The Egyptians invented glazing, the technique that gives some pottery its shiny coating. They also found that they could color the glaze by adding minerals like copper (which turned it bluish-green) or manganese (which turned it purple).
The Greeks began using the potter’s wheel about 1,000 BCE. They produced very sophisticated objects which were named according to their function. A krater, for example, had two handles and a wide mouth and was used to mix wine and water. A hydria had three handles and was used to carry water. And a pyxis, shaped like a short, wide cylinder with a lid, was used on dressing tables.
The Greeks, unlike the Egyptians, did not glaze their pottery. Instead, they used slip-a liquid that was basically clay with more water than normal-to “paint” designs that could be quite intricate. These designs, which were predominantly black, told the stories of their mythology, incorporating figures of their gods, goddesses, and heroes.
The Romans adapted Greek styles as well as developing their own. They used the potter’s wheel to make everyday objects. They also used molds, which made it possible to make exact duplicates quickly and easily.
Molds allowed the Romans to “mass produce” some items, so that there were enough to meet the needs of all the Empire’s inhabitants. They also paved the way for the development of other, later techniques that would bring down the cost of everyday pottery items-and probably result in the evolution of handmade pottery into the art form it is today.