Monday, November 29, 2010

The History of Ceramics - Chapter One

Ancient Indian Coiled Pottery Pot 
from The Mid-Western United States
Photo courtesy of Barnhill Indian Trader

The beginnings of human history are cloaked in mystery, but as speculation goes, Ceramics emerged around 8000 BC during the Neolithic Revolution when man first started using tools and developing agricultural skills. This produced a need for vessels to carry and cook the produce.

There is one exception that calls for mentioning, Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, where models of animals and a Venus figurine have been dated to about 25,000 years ago

The first vessels were baskets. The ubiquity of early coiled ceramic forms, from the Middle East to China to the America’s, suggests that pottery was first discovered when baskets were coated with clay so that they could hold small seeds and grain. Then one day the basket fell into the fire and it was discovered that heating hardens the clay making it more suitable as an airtight vessel. This event occurred synchronistically in different parts of the globe

Around 5000 BC it was discovered that by burnishing the half dry clay with a stone or a bone a smooth and more airtight surface could be created.

Ash firing was discovered when a pot was placed upside down on hot coals, reducing the surface of the rim to a glossy black. The upside down vase was also the first kiln. Then came the hole in the ground above which a bonfire was lit. Later the hole in the ground became a cave in a hill. The Chinese and Japanese expanded this into a complex system of successive chambers climbing over the slope of the hill

The kilns designed by the ancients are still in use today but have undergone modifications due to changes in fuel, materials, and the need for larger scale production. The greatest revolution in the technology of the kiln came with the discovery of electricity. The electric kiln simplified the process of firing as well as making it safer. This increased the popularity of the art of making the ceramics.

At first all pottery was made by women as part of the household chores, but as civilization developed, the “market” made its appearance and pottery became the work of the skilled craftsman. Around 3000 B.C, a simple revolving wheel existed in Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers The potter’s wheel economized the production of ceramics. By 4000 BC pottery making was predominantly masculine and the use of the potter’s wheel was commonplace.

The origins of mold making are traced back to Hellenistic Greece and the Roman Empire. This was a clay bowl with a design pressed into the inside. It was fired and then clay was hand pressed into the inside. A potter’s wheel was used to spin the surface until it was smooth. As it dried the clay reduced in size so that the “green” clay form was easily removed from the fired clay form.

Plaster, needed for molds used in ceramic slip casting dates 9000 years. The Romans cast in plaster to make copies of Greek sculptures and so it is much to my surprise to learn that the development of slip casting is credited to Ralph Daniel of Coolidge, Great Briton at the late date of 1743. I’ll be looking into this and reporting what I learn in future posts.

During the process of researching this series I have been using both the Internet and my father’s old ceramics books, some of them dating to the days
in the 1940’s when Dad studied ceramic slip casting in the Industrial Design department at Pratt Institute . His instructor was none other than the illustrious Eva Zeisel. Eva was quite taken aback when dad told her that he was actually going to move to Maine and start a hands-on ceramic slip casting studio of his own. This is what brings the organic quality to my parent’s designs, distinguishing their work from their more famous mid-century contemporaries who primarily designed for large production companies.

I love the process of a small slip-casting studio and I have also been enjoying researching and writing about the History of Ceramics. I look forward to continuing this discussion of The History of Ceramics and will continue it on this blog, Talking About Ceramics.  

I hope you enjoyed reading this at least half as much as I am enjoying writing it.   

The next email in this introductory series will be The Science of Ceramics. I can’t wait to dig into more of my father’s old books.

You can sign up to receive this email series and other news of interest on Andersen Studio's Home Page. 

One of my favorite references for this article has been Ceramics- A Potters Handbook by Glenn C Nelson, 1971 

Check out Biblio Books for great prices.