Pottery - Early History
Pottery is one of the most enduring materials known to humankind. In most places
it is the oldest and most widespread art; primitive peoples the world over have
fashioned pots and bowls of baked clay for their daily use. Prehistoric
(sometimes Neolithic) remains of pottery, e.g., in Scandinavia, England, France,
Italy, Greece, and North and South America, have proved of great importance in
archaeology and have often supplied a means of dating and establishing an early
chronology. Pottery has also been of value as historical and literary records;
ancient Assyrian and Babylonian writings have been inscribed upon clay tablets.
Simple geometric patterns in monochrome, polychrome, or incised work are common
to pottery of prehistoric and primitive cultures.
Pottery of the Ancient Mediterranean
By 1500 B.C. the use of glazes, such as the famous greens and blues, was known
in Egypt. Especially noteworthy is the early Aegean pottery of the Minoan and
Mycenaean periods with its curvilinear, painted decoration. In Assyria and
Neo-Babylonia, painted and glazed bricks were in common use. The Ishtar gate in
Babylon, with its ceramic reliefs, is an early example of the majolica
The Greek vases (800–300 B.C.), famous for symmetry of form and beauty of
decoration, include red, black, and varicolored examples. The last were for
tombs only, as the colors were painted, unfired, and easily marred. The red ware
is decorated with black figures, or the ground is black and the figures shown
red. Water, oil, and wine jars were numerous. Of the Greco-Roman wares, the
Arretine or Samian, also a red ware, was molded after first being turned on the
wheel to the size of the mold, which carried the decoration in intaglio.
Pottery of Asia
Painted pottery of the Neolithic period has been found in China. By the 2d cent.
B.C. the Early Han period had developed a green glaze which may have come from
the Middle East. In the Sui period (A.D. 581–618) and the T’ang period
(618–906), porcelain and porcelaneous ware (the envy of the Western world) began
to be made and exported to Korea and Japan and to the Islamic world. Technical
knowledge, however, was not exchanged, and Islam made no true porcelain.
Islamic pottery making was centered at Baghdad in the 10th cent. Blue and green
clear glazes were used, and lusterware was first employed as an overglaze.
Lusterware was highly developed under the Fatimites in Egypt (969–1171), and the
technique continued in use at major pottery centers over the centuries that
followed. During the 13th cent. Mongol domination of Persia brought renewed
Chinese influence to Islamic pottery making. Fine examples of Hispano-Moorish
pottery date from the 14th cent. Islamic architecture in the 15th cent. utilized
ceramic tile in immense quantities, as on the Blue Mosque at Tabriz.
Pottery of Europe
In Europe there was little pottery of great aesthetic importance before the 15th
cent., except perhaps some German stonewares. Majolica was mainly developed in
Italy and from there spread to Spain, France (where it was called faience), and
to Holland (where it came to be known as delftware). Majolica and stoneware were
the main pottery forms in Europe until the advent (18th cent.) of porcelain.
Pottery of the Americas
Prehistoric pottery found in Peru, Mexico, and the SW United States reveals a
high degree of skill in color, form, and decorative motifs. Baked-clay work by
colonists in North America began in 1612 with the making of bricks and tiles in
Virginia and Pennsylvania. In these states and among the Dutch settlers of New
York, potteries were soon established. The first whiteware was made in 1684. A
stoneware factory was opened in New York in 1735, and c.1750 the Jugtown pottery
of North Carolina was first produced. Terra-cotta works were operating in
Massachusetts and Pennsylvania after the middle of the 18th cent. Palatinate
refugees produced slip-decorated and graffito earthenware, and their product
formed the foundation of Shenandoah pottery.
In Philadelphia fine china was made (1769) for the first time in America. The
potteries of Bennington, Vt., which opened in 1793, were known especially for
their stoneware jugs; a variety of stoneware was also produced in several
locations in New York state. East Liverpool, Ohio, since 1839 one of the
foremost centers of the industry, produced the first American Rockingham ware.
Also widely produced in the United States were redware, ironstone, and
yellowware. Another center, begun in 1852 at Trenton, N.J., made fine Belleek or
eggshell china. The Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia and the
World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago did much to awaken native
consciousness of pottery as a form of art.
American art pottery flourished in the first half of the 20th cent., with works
created by a variety of artisans, many of whom were employed by companies such
as the Rookwood Pottery and Cincinnati Art Pottery. Much collected in the
decades that followed, this art pottery was created in such styles as art
nouveau, arts and crafts, and art deco. In addition, many of the major artists
of the 20th cent. created exquisite ceramic works. Especially notable are those
by Picasso, Matisse, and Miró. In spite of the continuing development of
mass-production techniques and synthetic materials, the demand for hand-crafted
ware of fine quality has not diminished. A variety of artisans make utilitarian
objects as well as works of art using many methods of pottery production.
Moreover, indigenous peoples, notably native Americans, continue to create a
number of vessels adapted from traditional forms.