Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ten Thousand Years of Pottery

Ten Thousand Years of Pottery is an excellent source for obtaining an overview of the innovations of pottery over the millennia. The author, Emmanuel Cooper, gives context to the achievements in ceramics by underlining the needs of each culture, setting these achievements within a historical context. The chapters advance both chronologically and geographically. In the case of the New World, the American Indian chapter groups both continents together since outside influences were not experienced until quite late.

The first chapter details the first civilizations to use clay and kilns. The author states that pottery seemed to appear around the same time that a society became less nomadic. The more sedentary way of life of farming civilizations required storage units for grains and other produce, and that could also be used for cooking. As containers, pottery was superior to other materials such as woven grasses and animals skins.

The technological leap from these less durable means to the firing of clay to change its properties has not been discovered. The most likely theory is that where fires were tended for cooking and protection, clay may have been used to insulate the area from moisture. This, in turn, transformed the clay from porous to a non-porous, hard medium. It is not until the introduction of fire into the process that pottery became much more long lived: this is when the history of pottery begins.

The invention of the wheel in Mesopotamian culture around 4000-3000 years before the Common Era gave the world the potter’s wheel and changed many aspects of how the clay was formed. The clay could be shaped much more quickly, and because of this it also needed to be more pliable with impurities removed before the potter began to throw. Since this new process involved a higher degree of skill, the potter enjoyed a higher status in society. Though the wheel allowed greater speed in creating pottery, the revolving motion did limit form. Using this method also changed decoration, as horizontal lines were much easier to create. This type of decoration prevailed throughout the area.

In the following chapters the author shows how culture, religion and technological advances influence the methods and forms of pottery. The ample use of color photographs underscores the variety of ceramics forms and decoration within and between cultures.

Un atelier de CĂ©ramistes, from the San Francisco Public Library Print and Picture Collection

The last chapter entitled Studio Ceramics Today details the work of ceramicists whose work is a merging of craft and art. Cooper states that “the broad spectrum of ceramics is often referred to as ‘clay work’ to avoid such potentially emotive labeling as potter, ceramicist, or maker.” Back matter includes a glossary, a listing of museum and national collections of pottery, a bibliography, illustration references and an index of names. Unfortunately, the book lacks a general index which would have been very useful.

Ten Thousand Years of Pottery by Emmanuel Cooper (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

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