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This first tutorial is an introduction, it sets the scene. Inevitably it touches on much more than the beginnings of our craft.
The story of Ceramics may begin as early as 30,000 years ago...
This period in history is called the
Old Stone Age
(500,000 BC. to 10,000 BC.) because Man's cutting tools or sharp weapons were made from carefully chipped pieces of flint - stone. The discovery of copper, bronze and iron was far into the future.
The last Ice Age was coming to an end and the huge glaciers were retreating towards the Poles. Our ancestors were nomadic hunters and food gatherers, who for generations had been slowly moving out of Africa, north and east. As wandering tribes they slept in the open or in shallow caves or under rock overhangs.
They would eventually learn how to make fire, at first to warm and protect themselves against other animals and later to cook meat and also... bake clay.
Recent archaeological evidence now shows that in some parts of the world our stone age ancestors had discovered how to bake clay figurines in bonfires and even make simple kilns as long as 30,000 years ago.
Makers of Images
Although their lifestyle was primitive Stone Age people made many realistic and lively images, mostly drawn, scratched or carved on bare rock walls. However, some were scraped or modelled in clay. The images were mostly of the animals they hunted.
Probably the most sophisticated and life-like Old Stone Age paintings of animals are those (LEFT) in the Caves of Lascaux in SW France and (RIGHT) the Caves of Altamira in NW Spain. Experts consider that these images were made over a long period and some may be more than 20,000 years old.
The Earliest Clay Art Too
Although more fragile even than the cave paintings, some clay images of animals have survived. Most were probably made over 20,000 years ago.
Here are just two examples: (LEFT) A lively drawing of a bison's head which has been scratched in clay smeared on the rock wall in a cave in the foothills of the Pyrenees in S.W.France. (RIGHT) An almost three dimensional relief of a bison scraped and modelled out of a large outcrop of clay. This too was found in a cavern in S.W. France.
Countless clay drawings and reliefs must have either dried out and crumbled away or been washed away. But the few which have survived show us that image making in clay is as ancient and sophisticated as the paintings.
Many images were made deep inside caves, so artificial light would have been needed - some sort of crude oil/fat lamps or perhaps torches burning animal fat or tree resins. Such secret and difficult sites reflect the importance they attached to their image making.
Just Images, or Potent Symbols?
Besides making images of animals these people carved vast numbers of tiny human figurines in stone, bone or modelled in clay. These images were usually female and in most cases only an inch or two high. One of the most naturalistic is a tiny limestone carving known as the Willendorf Venus from the name of the Austrian village near which it was found. It may seem a caricature of the female form, but amongst the countless number of female figurines so far found it is exceptional in its naturalism. Most are stylised into almost abstract globular forms clustered together. They are all considered to be mother-goddess or fertility images. Many thousands of such prehistoric images have been found world wide.
The Ceramic Discovery
The discovery that fire made soft crumbly clay shapes permanent is really the beginning of ceramics. It is now apparent that it occurred in the Stone Age, but when and where Man first recognised this is still a mystery which may never be completely solved. Archaeologists used to believe that ceramic objects were not made until well after 10,000 BC. But in recent years scientific tests on small objects found on Stone Age sites (in eastern Europe) suggest that Man discovered the principle of using a fire to bake clay at least 30,000 years ago. Many fragments of tiny baked clay figurines found together in prehistoric sites in the Czech Republic are now considered to date from as early as 27,000 BC. - an even earlier date than many of the cave paintings!
Fired Clay Figurines?
This blackened figurine was found together with many other baked fragments. Mixtures of bone ash and clay moulded had been modelled or moulded into female figurines or animals and then baked in what appears to have been a simple beehive kiln in a stone age village. This particular small blackish figurine, about 4 1/2" high, has come to be known as the Dolni Vestonice "Venus" from the prehistoric village site in Moravia near Brno, in the south of the Czech Republic, where it was found. If the dating is correct, these objects are almost certainly the earliest ceramic figures that have come to light so far...
The ceramic "discovery" or "invention" happened independently in different parts of the world - Europe, Asia, east and west, Africa, the Americas and in the Pacific, so with advances in dating techniques, more widespread exploration and more detailed study of results there are certain to be more ceramic archaeological surprises in store.
Hunting, Fertility and Survival
The general consensus amongst archaeologists is that all these images, both animals and female figurines, were a vital part of a system of mystic beliefs and ritual. A precarious lifestyle and a drive to survive were at the heart of this. By making these images and symbols these Stone Age hunters hoped somehow to influence the situation: prevent or lessen various disasters. The rites and images could in some mysterious way enable enough wild animals to be caught and killed for food and clothing and also cause the women to bear sufficient healthy children to continue a viable hunting tribe.
From Hunter to Farmer
The way of life for prehistoric Man in the Old Stone Age changed hardly at all over many thousands of years. But about 10,000 BC., some groups in different parts of the world had begun to settle down on permanent sites, build villages, breed animals and grow crops - become farmers and stock breeders. Archaeologists term this last part of prehistory the
New Stone Age
because the techniques of making flint cutting tools greatly improved as itinerant hunters and food gatherers became village farmers.
Ceramics in Prehistoric Western Asia
It is still accepted that this development began earliest in the region we call Western Asia or the Middle East - From the Anatolian highlands of Turkey in the north, the the Persian Gulf in the south. And from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean in the west to the Zagros mountains of Iran in the east.
By at least 6500 BC. the making of ceramic figurines and pottery were well established in many villages of Western Asia. We can now follow the early development of ceramics in this part of the world in considerable detail down through the next millennia.
This little baked clay figurine was found in the prehistoric village of Tepe Sarab in western Iran. It is dated about 6000 BC. By now the people of Western Asia had given up their nomadic life and were building villages in the hilly woodland. In western Asia this was in the foothills of the Taurus mountains in Turkey or of the Zagros mountains in Iran. Concern about fertility and its mystery was just as great as when Man was a wandering hunter living in caves. This object is a quite sophisticated piece of modelling. Notice how elements of the female body have been translated into a number of bold tapering conical forms producing a very striking almost geometric symbol of fecundity. It would not look out of place in a modern sculpture exhibition. What might appear as mere simplification is a symbol evocative of the entire female figure and all these tiny s sculptures were clearly intended to be images of motherhood.
This realistic ceramic image of a wild boar was also found in the neolithic village site Tepe Sarab, Iran. It was made soon after 6000 BC. It probably played some part in the hunting rituals that still continued. It is marked with scratches which could represent spears or arrows. By this time, instead of just hunting wild animals, Man was now learning to domesticate and breed the wild pigs, goats and sheep which roamed the hilly woodlands of Western Asia.
Religious Beliefs Evolve,
Image-making Becomes More Complex
At Çatal Hüyük in the Anatolian highland of western Turkey some remarkable discoveries were made a few years ago. This was a prehistoric settlement of farmers and cattle-breeders dating from about 6500 BC. Remains were found of mud brick houses with plaster and painted decoration showing animal and human figures. Some of the houses seem to be shrines or sanctuaries. There must have been a number of skilled craftsmen because of the variety of objects discovered, including a great variety of figurines.
This enthroned female, an extraordinary example in baked clay, exemplifies the evolving rites and more complex beliefs of a people with a settled way of life. She is probably a Goddess, flanked by leopards and possibly giving birth. It dates from about 5500 BC. and was found in a grain bin in what is thought to be a "shrine".
A New Container Comes Out Of The Bonfire
Shells, skulls, nuts and scooped out fruit skins all must have been used to hold water, milk or blood by our prehistoric ancestors. The discovery that small lumps of clay could be squeezed and pressed into cup or bowl shapes and then put in a bonfire to make hard was an important stage in the life of most prehistoric communities. Using the palm, thumb and fingers to squash, squeeze, press and poke, small bowls could have been made by pressing out from seed and nut husks or shells and also by pressing lumps of clay over large pebbles.
This tiny pot was found in a British prehistoric grave site. It illustrates the simple shapes made by an early pottery-making culture, thumb or finger pressed in for decoration.
As they became more expert in coiling pots, more daring shapes were made. The rim of this small round bowl has been built up into a square collar then squeezed and pressed to make more beak-like lips at each corner. There are also lugs so that it could be hung up with a cord. It is a quite sophisticated form of jug probably for use in ceremonies or rituals. It was found in Sanguineto, a neolithic cave site in Liguria, NW Italy
The Basket and The Pot
Weaving techniques and basket making are almost certainly older than pottery. Our wandering ancestors would have needed to carry things! When Man settled down in villages, these weaving and basket making techniques were adapted to make even more things from fencing to thatching and rope making etc. The influence of woven patterns on early pottery has also been considerable. In some communities basket making probably led to the technique of pottery making.
This is the remains of an ancient basket found in the mud of the river Nile, Egypt. It was made about 4000 BC. Bundles of plant stalks were tied together and coiled and woven to make a basket about three feet across. Baskets like this made from a variety of plants would be strong enough to carry quite heavy loads. If such a basket were lined with animal skins and fat, even water could be carried from the river to the village.
At some point, probably before 7000 B.C., someone discovered an easier, less wasteful, way to waterproof a basket - by smearing the inside with a layer of stiff mud or clay. Here are some photos which illustrate how simple and effective this technique is:
Waterproofing Straw Baskets
1: Smearing the inside of a small woven basket with clay.
2: Inside of basket covered with clay lining.
3: Completely water proof when filled with water.
4: Also quite flexible, so can be easily carried.
5: Larger baskets could be used for storing water.
6: Probably they would need a thicker lining of clay.
Fire is a hazard in all communities and sooner or later some of these clay-lined baskets must have been destroyed when huts were burned in accidental fires or conflict.
7: If the fire was extensive and intense...only the clay lining was left, but it would now be permanently hard.
8: Occasionally in the rubble of the ashes there might be left the complete clay lining - a fired clay pot.
Unlike a basket, this sort of container was rot proof and rat proof - a new and potentially very valuable utensil had been discovered.
From Clay Lined Baskets to Basket Patterned Pots
We will never know who first took advantage of this method to make a pot. In any case it seems to have happened quite independently in various parts of the world. Strong links with basket making are evident in the earliest pots of most cultures.
Basket-making and coiling clay bowls and pots were jobs carried out mostly by the womenfolk of the village in between rearing children and preparing food. Kneading and rolling out dough for bread are similar techniques to handling clay. Weaving canes to make the bottom of a basket and then sides is not unlike the way pots are coiled. Not surprisingly too, most of the earliest pots, if decorated, are ornamented with pressed patterns derived from baskets.
These two photos show how simple it is to emulate the texture of basketwork on a pot:
Photo(1) By simply pressing a short strip of woven straw repeatedly in a spiral up the sides of the pot.
Photo(2) Winding a short length of string or twine around a small stick and rolling this with the palm of the hand over the pot.
The Great Influence of the Basket on Pottery
This little coiled bowl appears almost as if made in plaited straw! A series of simple marks spiral around the globular bowl shape from the base to the indented heavy rim. At a casual glance this could easily be mistaken for being a small simply woven basket.The press-patterned sides are so like a coiled rope basket pattern. It was found containing grain seeds - food for the dead person - in a prehistoric grave in Britain...
A more elaborately decorated food bowl from bronze-age Britain. This shows a more complex impressed pattern but it's clearly imitating a plaiting technique. This one has a more daring shape and is stick-decorated with a much more complex series of marks and scratches which results in a very beautiful pattern with an intricate woven band which alternates with marked rings of imitation sewn ribbing.
This small prehistoric Egyptian coiled bowl is about six inches across. It comes from a grave dated about 4000 BC. Bands have been scratched into the red clay, allowed to stiffen a bit, and then white slip brushed or smeared over and then allowed to dry somewhat more. It could then be gently scraped until the incised pattern appeared white, looking rather like stitches. This decoration may have been done in stages.
In this detail we can see that the rim was stamped with a triangular ended tool, whilst still soft,and thick white slip applied here too. When leather-hard, and after scraping, the rim would have appeared to imitate an elaborate band of stitched binding. Finally, before drying and baking in a bonfire, the finished pot was probably burnished with a piece of bone or polished stone. Often the more refractory white clay slip doesn't stick so well to the red clay and in time and with wear powders away - this is evident here.
The Earliest Pottery Making Industry Was Born In Western Asia
The technique of pressing and coiling clay vessels and firing them in simple bonfires had probably spread throughout most of villages of Western Asia before 6500 BC. The pressed and scratched decoration was soon followed by brush painting with different clay slips, usually cream, brown, red, black or white. But human beings are generally slow to accept change; most of us like to keep the things we are used to.
Basket Patterned, But Now Brush Painted.
This little food bowl from Hacilar in Anatolian Turkey was made about 5000 BC. It is painted to look like a basket using red and white slip applied with a brush. Consider how often today's new man-made coverings imitate the colour and texture of traditional materials. This new-fangled material "pottery" could even hold water, but our ancestors still preferred it to look as much like a patterned basket as possible.
By 5000 BC. a wide range of imaginative brush and incised patterns was spreading throughout Western Asia. Look at the collection of pot fragments from the region. Most of the designs still have that unmistakable geometric structure confirming the powerful influence of basket-making and woven ornament.
An elaborately decorated dish from Arpachiyah N.Iraq c. 5000 BC. Red, black and white slip are all used to decorate this dish made from a pale buff coloured clay. It reminds me of geometric patterned basket-work platters made from dyed reeds and grasses which are still made in the Middle-East and elsewhere. Often referred to as Halaf ware (from Tell Halaf in Syria),this type of richly patterned pottery of the late sixth to mid fifth millennium BC. has been found over a wide area from northern Syria and Iraq northwards into Turkey.
Compare the previous illustration with this colour reconstruction. It may help you appreciate how striking that worn original dish could have looked when it was first made: rich colours and crispness of pattern. The petals of the flower-like decoration in the centre have been painted in red slip but a thin line of the body colour had been left as a subtle outline. The background of black emphasises the centre design and further out bands of red and black chequer pattern contrast with the pale fine lines of the exposed body. A thick black band marks the point where the rim and the bowl meet and added sparkle has been given to the chequer pattern by quartering the black squares with a cross in white slip. As a final refinement the edge of the rim has been painted with a fine black zigzag line - like a stitched binding.
Brush Painting Encouraged A Greater Freedom of Design
Although at first most potters used this new painting technique to make their pots look even more like baskets, brush painting opened the way for making more fluid, less geometric shapes and patterns.
The brushed strokes of dark slip on this jug are varied in size and thickness. The shapes are not straight-line geometric forms, they curve and taper naturally. The brush gave a freedom to draw more delicate forms on a pot. Gradually basket patterns were replaced by a range of different images and styles.
The brush decoration might include ancient geometric patterns and symbols but could also include lively painting of men, women and animals, as was painted on this jar from the Diyala valley in southern Iraq c.3100 BC. There is now considerable attention to detail, fine lines and broad stokes in red and white slip. With brush painting the styles become more individual and the differences between regions more apparent.
The Tendency to Simplify and Stylise
Most of all, images could be more realistic, like the bull's head on a fragment of a pot. However, the direct and cartoon like realism we see in this image did change over time.
These five little drawings illustrate changes in the bull's head image which can be seen on Mesopotamian pottery from c.4000 - 3000 BC. Perhaps surprisingly the images became more simplified and gradually stylised into an abstract symbol over some generations. You do need to follow the gradual changes through in order to see that the earlier and the later examples represent the same idea - represented by a bull's head.
The last two examples have become decorative bands with a built in symbolism. Of course we can only speculate about the exact meaning of this and many other symbols.
Life After Death - New Rites and Ceremonies
As Man's life-style changed so did his customs and beliefs. Once his religion was concerned almost entirely with hunting and fertility rites and the urgent problems of day-to-day survival. But even before he had a permanent dwelling Man was beginning to bury his dead with ritual.
This reconstructed burial pit comes from Pre-dynastic Egypt c.4000 BC. It contains quite a number of pots with blackened rims. These once stood upright with their pointed ends pushed into the sandy bottom of the grave. The open tops would have been covered with cloth because each contained food and drink for the dead man's journey into the next world. In the more settled world of the Neolithic Age most cultures now made provision for an after-life for their dead.
This single black-rimmed pot from an Egyptian grave c.4000 BC. shows clearly the simple bold red and black decoration characteristic of much of the grave pottery of this culture. After coiling, the pot was painted on the outside with a bright red slip and then burnished and baked in a bonfire. The rim was smoke-blackened afterwards by burying the pot almost to the rim in the hot embers of the fire and then covering what was exposed with fresh damp plant material. This would burn slowly with a lot of smoke impregnating the exposed parts of the porous clay with black carbon. Clearly this colour arrangement had an important ritual significance. Unfortunately we can only speculate about its meaning.
Prehistoric Images and Symbols
From the time of the cave paintings, prehistoric Man has used particular colours, usually red, white and black, and certain patterns, shapes and images to symbolise important ideas. But, for the most part we today are unable to comprehend the real meaning of these symbols. When we look at these patterns and images painted on prehistoric pottery we can only appreciate the work as form and ornament.
We will probably never know the meaning of many of the symbols, signs and images created by pre-pottery and pre-literate cultures but many archaeologists believe that most of the symbols used in the Old Stone Age are connected with fertility and the male and female principle.
For example, in cave paintings, the spear, dart or arrow is usually painted on or close to male animals.
On the other hand, a chequer flag, solid triangle or diamond pattern is often associated with female animals - usually pregnant.
This next detail shows the legs and hoofs of a large cow standing on fully drawn and coloured flags.
These bone tools from the stone age were made at least 15,000 years before the first painted pottery. Look at the lower tools, the carved and incised motifs are the chevron and the dart. Now if we look at the upper two we can see a spiral decoration. Can there be any link between the symbols used by the cave hunters and those painted on prehistoric pottery thousands of years later? At this moment we just do not know.
This beaker comes from the prehistoric village of Susa, Iran. What can be the meaning and significance of each part of this carefully balanced and executed design? What are those darts? What is the meaning behind the arrangement of chequer patterns and the lattice of criss-cross lines carefully placed at the apex of each alternate "V" or chevron design? This must be more than mere decoration. Very thinly coiled from a pale coloured clay, this elegant beaker stands about 12 inches high. It was found in a prehistoric village site in southern Iran called Susa and was made about 4000 BC.
Spiral Motifs - what do they mean?
This solid looking spherical jar is a food pot from a prehistoric grave, Egypt c.3500 BC. It is covered with brush painted spirals in black slip.
This small red and cream slip-decorated pot from Hacilar in western Turkey c.5200 BC. has a curvilinear double spiral design painted in red. The shapes suggest breasts and overall a female form within the globular shape of the pot.
This second ovoid pot from Hacilar c.5200BC. is painted in the characteristic red and cream slip. It has two curious features. The red slip-painted spirals around the two small lug handles could represent breasts. Red slip drawing of a human-like figure may include exaggerated pendulous breasts rather than sausage like arms.
The spiral motif and the associated breast forms in these illustrations are from different often distant cultures. Is this a curious coincidence or is there an ancient link? All of these pots could have contained milk used in a ritual or ceremony and maybe were also used for grave provisions.
From Sialk, Iran comes this little beaker made about 4000 BC. Around its middle are dark painted bands and a small arrowhead pattern, but most interest is centred on the painted frieze of bearded goats with horns curved back almost into a circle and within is a painted cross. Almost certainly this "decoration" had a symbolic meaning.
Sophisticated Form and Ornament
This beaker was found in prehistoric Susa in southern Iran and was made c.4000 BC. It is without doubt one of the most elegant and beautiful pieces of prehistoric pottery to have survived. It is finely and thinly potted. The monochrome painting is a complex design. Look at the top edge, the black band which marks and emphasises the slightly flaring rim. Then look down and see the greater thickness of the black band at the foot; it gives weight and stability to the whole design and with the top band acts as a frame. Within this frame the design is divided into three registers separated by a thick band and fine lines. The middle register seems to be a continuous row of diamond shapes. At the top is a procession of very schematised wader birds. The lower register occupies more than half the surface. An ibex is framed by a thick black rectangular band and beyond is a diamond and triangular pattern, separating the unseen ibex designs on the other side.
The Imagery And Symbols May Always Remains A Mystery
This detail of the stylised ibex shows more clearly the pair of enormous elongated horns curved practically into a circle and enclosing a sort of medallion with a cross pattern and the dart, or perhaps sheaf of corn, motif. Below the arching form of the animal is the same group of black and white diamonds we have seen on the other pot. How tantalising it is that we have no idea what these symbols meant!
This last pot illustration is a drawing of a jar from the Diyala valley in southern Iraq c.3000 BC. It shows scenes including animals birds and human figures. There are spear-like stems in panels, the women have bird-like heads and feathers in their hair. The flying birds in the top panel are carrying something like twigs. Interpreting all this would be subjective and probably wildly wrong. The ideas behind all these complex drawings are an intriguing mystery and may always be so, but the quality of the craftsmanship, design and decoration of so many of these early pots is still a valuable legacy for us to enjoy and study.
Scratched Symbols and Painted Images Used For Lists and Ideas
We can never properly know the beliefs of the ancient Stone Age people nor exactly how the images and objects were used in their rituals, because they were unable to write and leave behind records. However, all these hunting and fertility symbols and images carved in stone, wood and bone, and modelled in clay or scratched on clay were part of a long process of image building which after many generations led to written lists of things, animals or people, trading accounts and eventually a record of events. In Western Asia, not far from present day Basra in southern Iraq, the people here started to use pictographs scratched onto clay tablets before 3000 BC.
Written Records in Clay Mark The End Of Prehistory
One of the earliest clay tablets c.3200 BC. It seems to include proper names in pictograph form.
A clay tablet containing a list of accounts involving animals, bread and beer.
A clay tablet c.3000 BC. containing an inventory of metal vessels: four different types of containers, two of them simply marked "large" and "small". Three different types of numeral symbols are used to count them.
When any culture reaches the stage of finding a way of making lists and accounts and then, soon after, a record of events, this marks the end of their
history and the beginning of the record of their story or
HISTORY. They have developed a WRITTEN Language and much of this evolved through drawing on clay pots and tablets.
This happened earliest in Western Asia amongst the thriving village communities in the southern part of Iraq where the two rivers the Tigris and the Euphrates meet as they near the Persian Gulf. The Greeks called this region Mesopotamia (between two rivers). In prehistoric times it saw the birth of the earliest urban civilization - Sumer. This area was the scene of the recent Gulf War.
Summary: Tutorial No.1. Prehistoric Origins
The prehistoric origins of ceramics are towards the end of the Palaeolithic Old Stone Age, probably about 30,000 years ago - Clay modelling and drawing earliest. The first fired clay fertility figurines may have been made.
Strictly speaking the beginning of ceramics is when the first clay objects were made permanent by heating in a bonfire.
Making and firing clay pottery did not appear until the Neolithic Age - after about 10,000 BC.( maybe later).
This happened in places where people had begun to settle in village communities.
We still are not sure where the first pots was made, but in Western Asia there is an early and continuous tradition of pottery making from soon after 7000 BC.
The technique of pressing or coiling pots spread as the villages grew and prospered.
Scratch marked decoration was soon followed by painting with two or more coloured slips before 5500 BC.
Basket patterns were the most common forms of decoration, but soon brush painted images and symbols began to appear.
By 3000 BC. pottery-making was a large scale affair but still pots were all made by pressing or coiling.
Pots could be polished and grease, fat or milk used to make then less porous, but glazes had not been discovered.
The highest firing temperatures were about 950'C.- a very hot bonfire.
The origins and meanings of the decorative motifs found on all this prehistoric pottery are still obscure - the dart, chequer patterns, lattice work, diamonds, spirals and the animal and human figures.
A written language is invented about the beginning of the 3rd millennium in Mesopotamia. The first lists, account and records appear on baked clay tablets as scratched marks.
In Western Asia prehistory ends c. 3000 BC.