Pottery in the ancient world

The present age is above all an age of Discovery. The thirst for knowledge manifests itself in all directions—theological, scientific, geographical, historical, and antiquarian. The handiwork of Nature and of Man alike are called upon to yield up their secrets to satisfy the universal demand which has arisen from the spread of education and the ever-increasing desire for culture which is one of the characteristics of the present day. And though, perhaps, the science of Archaeology does not command as many adherents as other branches of learning, there is still a very general desire to enquire into the records of the past, to learn what we can of the methods of our forefathers, and to trace the influence of their writings or other evidences of their existence on succeeding ages.

To many of us what is known as a classical education seems perhaps in these utilitarian times somewhat antiquated and unnecessary, but at the same time “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” have not lost their interest for us, and can awaken responsive chords in most of our hearts. Nor can we ever be quite forgetful of the debt that we owe to those nations in almost every branch of human learning and industry. To take the most patent instance of all, that of our language, it is not too much to say that nearly every word is either directly derived from a classical source or can be shown to have etymological affinities with either of the two ancient tongues. Nor is it necessary to pursue illustrations further. We need only point to the evidences of classical influence on modern literature, modern philosophy, and modern political and social institutions, to indicate how our civilisation is permeated and saturated with the results of ancient ideas and thoughts. The man of science has recourse to Greek or Latin for his nomenclature; the scholar employs Latin as the most appropriate vehicle for criticism; and modern architecture was for a long time only a revival (whether successful or not) of the principles and achievements of the classical genius.

Now, those who would pursue the study of a nation's history cannot be content with the mere perusal of such literary records as it may have left behind. It needs brief consideration to realise that this leaves us equipped with very little real knowledge of an ancient race, inasmuch as the range of literature is necessarily limited, and deals with only a few sides of the national character: its military history, its political constitution, or its intellectual and philosophical bent—in short, its external and public life alone. He who would thoroughly investigate the history of a nation instinctively desires something more; he will seek to gain a comprehensive acquaintance with its social life, its religious beliefs, its artistic and intellectual attainments, and generally to estimate the extent of its culture and civilisation. But to do this it is necessary not only to be thoroughly conversant with its literary and historical records, but to turn attention also to its monuments . It need hardly be said that the word “monument” is here used in the quasi-technical sense current among archaeologists (witness the German use of the word Denkmäler ), and that it must bear here a much wider signification than is generally accorded to it nowadays. It may, in fact, be applied to any object which has come down to us as a memorial and evidence of a nation's productive capacity or as an illustration of its social or political life. The student of antiquity can adopt no better motto than the familiar line of Terence:

Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto.

For the very humblest product of the human brain or hand, a potsherd or a few letters scratched on a stone, may throw the most instructive light on the history of a race.

In no instance is this better seen than in the case of Assyria, where almost all that we know of that great and wonderful people is derived from the cuneiform inscriptions scratched on tablets of baked clay. Or, again, we may cite the stone and bronze implements of the primitive peoples of Europe as another instance where “the weak and base things of the world and the things that are despised” have thrown floods of light on the condition of things in a period about which we should have been completely in the dark so long as we looked only to literary records for our information. Nothing is so common that it may be overlooked, and we may learn more from a humble implement in daily use than from the finest product of a poetic or artistic intellect, if we are really desirous of obtaining an intimate acquaintance with the domestic life of a people.

Among the simplest yet most necessary adjuncts of a developing civilisation Pottery may be recognised as one of the most universal. The very earliest and rudest remains of any people generally take the form of coarse and common pots, in which they cooked their food or consumed their beverages. And the fact that such vast quantities of pottery from all ancient civilisations have been preserved to us is due partly to its comparatively imperishable nature, partly to the absence of any intrinsic value which saved it from falling a prey to the ravages of fire, human greed, or other causes which have destroyed more precious monuments, such as gold ornaments, paintings, and statues of marble or bronze. Moreover, it is always in the pottery that we perceive the first indications of whatever artistic instinct a race possesses, clay being a material so easy to decorate and so readily lending itself to plastic treatment for the creation of new forms or development from simple to elaborate shapes.

To trace the history of the art of working in clay, from its rise amongst the oldest nations of antiquity to the period of the decline of the Roman Empire, is the object of the present work. The subject resolves itself into two great divisions, which have engaged the attention of two distinct classes of enquirers: namely, the technical or practical part, comprising all the details of material, manipulation, and processes; and, secondly, the historical portion, which embraces not only the history of the art itself, and the application of ancient literature to its elucidation, but also an account of the light thrown by monuments in clay on the history of mankind. Such an investigation is therefore neither trifling in character nor deficient in valuable results.

It is impossible to determine when the manufacture of pottery was invented. Clay is a material so generally diffused, and its plastic nature is so easily discovered, that the art of working it does not exceed the intelligence of the rudest savage. Even the most primitive graves of Europe and Western Asia contain specimens of pottery, rude and elementary indeed, but in sufficient quantities to show that it was at all times reckoned among the indispensable adjuncts of daily life.

It is said that the very earliest specimens of pottery, hand-made and almost shapeless, have been discovered in the cave-dwellings of Palaeolithic Man, such as the Höhlefels cave near Ulm, and that of Nabrigas, near Toulouse; and pottery has also been found in the “kitchen-middens” of Denmark, which belong to this period. Such relics are, however, so rude and fragmentary, and so much doubt has been cast on the circumstances of their discovery, that it is better to be content with the evidence afforded by the Neolithic Age, of which perhaps the best authenticated is the predynastic pottery of Egypt.[1]

Abundant specimens of pottery have been found in long barrows in all parts of Western Europe; these are supposed to be the burial-places of the early dolichocephalic races, now represented by the Finns and Lapps, which preceded the Aryan immigration. The chief characteristic of this pottery is the almost entire absence of ornamentation. Neolithic man appears to have been far less endowed with the artistic instinct than his palaeolithic predecessor. Where ornament does occur, it appears to have a quite fortuitous origin: for instance, a kind of rope-pattern that appears on the earliest pottery of Britain and Germany, and also in America, owes its origin to the practice of moulding the clay in a kind of basket of bark or thread. It is also possible that cords of some kind were used for carrying the pots; and this reminds us of another characteristic of the earliest pottery, which, indeed, lasts down to the Bronze Age—namely, the absence of handles.

The baking of clay, so as to produce an indestructible and tenacious substance, was probably also the result of accident rather than design. This was pointed out as long ago as the middle of the eighteenth century by M. Goguet. In most countries the condition of the atmosphere precludes the survival of sun-dried clay for any length of time; moreover, such a material was more suitable for architecture (as we shall see later) than for vessels destined to hold liquids. Thus it is that Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia alone have transmitted to posterity the early efforts of workers in sun-dried clay.

To return to the new invention. The savage conceivably found that the calabash or gourd in which he boiled the water for his simple culinary needs was liable to be damaged by the action of fire; and it required no very advanced mental process to smear the exterior of the vessel with some such substance as clay in order to protect it. As he found that the surface of the clay was thereby rendered hard and impervious, his next step would naturally be to dispense with the calabash and mould the clay into a similar form. These two simple qualities of clay, its plastic nature and its susceptibility to the action of fire, are the two elements which form the basis of the whole development of the potter's art.

From the necessity for symmetrical buildings arose the invention of the brick, which must have superseded the rude plastering of the hut with clay, to protect it against the sun or storm. In the history of the Semitic nations the brick appears among the earliest inventions, and its use can be traced with various modifications, from the building of the Tower of Babel to the present day. It is essential that bricks should be symmetrical, and their form is generally rectangular. Their geometrical shape affords us a clue to ancient units of measurement, and the various inscriptions with which they have been stamped have elevated them to the dignity of historical monuments. Thus the bricks of Egypt not only afford testimony, by their composition of straw and clay, that the writer of Exodus was acquainted with that country, but also, by the hieroglyphs impressed upon them, transmit the names of a series of kings, and testify to the existence of edifices, all knowledge of which, except for these relics, would have utterly perished. Those of Assyria and Babylon, in addition to the same information, have, by their cuneiform inscriptions, which mention the locality of the edifices for which they were made, afforded the means of tracing the sites of ancient Mesopotamia and Assyria with an accuracy unattainable by any other means. The Roman bricks have also borne their testimony to history. A large number of them present a series of the names of consuls of imperial Rome; while others show that the proud nobility of the eternal city partly derived their revenues from the kilns of their Campanian and Sabine estates.

From the next step in the progress of the manufacture—namely, that of modelling in clay the forms of the physical world—arose the plastic art. Delicate as is the touch of the finger, which the clay seems to obey, almost as if comprehending the intention of the potter's mind, yet certain forms and ornaments which require a finer point than the nail gave rise to the use of pieces of horn, wood, and metal, and thus contributed to the invention of tools. But modelling in clay was soon superseded by sculpture in stone and metal, and at length only answered two subordinate ends: that of enabling the sculptor to elaborate his first conceptions in a material which could be modified at will; and that of readily producing works of a small and inexpensive form, for some transitory purpose. The invention of the mould carried this last application to perfection, and the terracottas of antiquity were as numerous and as cheap as the plaster casts now sold by itinerants.

The materials used for writing have varied in different ages and nations. Stone and bronze, linen and papyrus, wax and parchment, have all been used. But the Assyrians and Babylonians employed for their public archives, their astronomical computations, their religious dedications, their historical annals, and even for title-deeds and bills of exchange, tablets, cylinders, and hexagonal prisms of terracotta. Some of these cylinders, still extant, contain the history of the Assyrian monarchs Tiglath-pileser and Assurbanipal, and the campaign of Sennacherib against the kingdom of Judah; and others, excavated from the Birs Nimrud, give a detailed account of the dedication of the great temple by Nebuchadnezzar to the seven planets. To this indestructible material, and to the happy idea of employing it in this manner, the present age is indebted for a detailed history of the Assyrian monarchy; whilst the decades of Livy, the plays of Menander, and the lays of Anakreon, confided to a more perishable material, have either wholly or partly disappeared.

The application of clay to the making of vases was made effective by the invention of the potter's wheel. Before the introduction of the wheel only vessels fashioned by the hand, and of rude unsymmetrical shape, could have been made. But the application of a circular table or lathe, laid horizontally and revolving on a central pivot, on which the clay was placed, and to which it adhered, was in its day a truly wonderful advance. As the wheel spun round, all combinations of oval, spherical, and cylindrical forms could be produced, and the vases not only became symmetrical in their proportions, but truthfully reproduced the potter's conception. The invention of the wheel has been ascribed to all the great nations of antiquity. It is represented in full activity in the Egyptian sculptures; it is mentioned in the Scriptures, and was certainly in use at an early period in Assyria. The Greeks and Romans attributed it to a Scythian philosopher, and to the states of Athens, Corinth, and Sikyon, the first two of which were great rivals in the ceramic art. But, as will be explained hereafter, it was introduced at a very early stage in the history of civilisation upon Greek soil.

Although none of the very ancient kilns have survived the destructive influence of time, yet among all the great nations baked earthenware is of the highest antiquity. In Egypt, in the tombs of the first dynasties, vases and other remains of baked earthenware are abundantly found; and in Assyria and Babylon even the oldest bricks and tablets have passed through the furnace. The oldest remains of Hellenic pottery in all cases owe their preservation to their having been subjected to the action of fire. To this process, as to the consummation of the art, the other processes of preparing, levigating, kneading, drying, and moulding the clay were necessarily ancillary.

The desire of rendering terracotta less porous, and of producing vases capable of retaining liquids, gave rise to the covering of it with a vitreous enamel or glaze. The invention of glass was attributed by the ancients to the Phoenicians; but opaque glass or enamels, as old as the Eighteenth Dynasty, and enamelled objects as early as the Fourth, have been found in Egypt. The employment of copper to produce a brilliant blue-coloured enamel was very early both in Babylonia and Assyria; but the use of tin for a white enamel, as discovered in the enamelled bricks and vases of Babylonia and Assyria, anticipated by many centuries the rediscovery of that process in Europe in the fifteenth century, and shows the early application of metallic oxides. This invention apparently remained for many centuries a secret among the Eastern nations only, enamelled terracotta and glass forming articles of commercial export from Egypt and Phoenicia to every part of the Mediterranean. Among the Egyptians and Assyrians enamelling was used more frequently than glazing; hence they used a kind of faience consisting of a loose frit or body, to which an enamel adheres after only a slight fusion. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the art of enamelling terracotta disappeared except amongst the Arab and Moorish races, who had retained a traditionary knowledge of the process. The application of a transparent vitreous coating, or glaze, to the entire surface, like the varnish of a picture, is also to be referred to a high antiquity. Originally intended to improve the utility of the vase, it was used by Greeks and Romans with a keen sense of the decorative effects that could be derived from its use.


1 .  B.M. Guide to First and Second Egyptian Rooms  (1904), p. 22; for early Neolithic pottery from Ireland see Guide to Antiqs. of Stone Age , p. 84.