Book: Ceramics - Art or Science? Author: Dr. Stan Jones

3. Background to Earliest Pottery

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Background to Earliest Pottery

Early modern man was a hunter-gatherer, which usually meant finding his food supplies on a cycle based on the calendar.   They would know the migratory habits of animals and follow herds of animals, periodically killing some for food and clothing. They would also know when certain trees would fruit, and where and when certain plants and roots could be found. They had to carry all this information in their memories. They might set up camp for a period in sites they had used before, which felt familiar and were safe from, for example, predatory animals or floods, and had the necessary amenities such as water and shelter. Clearly with such an unsettled lifestyle the possessions they could carry, particularly large or heavy ones, were severely limited. Whenever possible they would make use of local materials and discard them before moving on. So, early containers would be folded leaves, gourds, coconuts, skulls and bamboo. Some would be useful for solids and others for liquids. Progressively over thousands of years man became increasingly sedentary, usually because the climate changed to make food more available from a given location.

A very early use of clay would have been as sun-dried objects. We do not know when early man started to use clay to make these, as they deteriorate and disappear in time. However he would have noticed that certain soils (clays) became sufficiently hard that they could be used for various purposes and moist clay could easily be moulded into shape. Sun-dried clay bricks were used for thousands of years especially in areas of infrequent rainfall where buildings made of them can last for decades. However, since sun-dried bricks remain soluble in water they can readily decompose when wet. They are the oldest man-made building material and straw was often used as a binder (Bible-Exodus Ch 5). They were used to build houses in Anatolia and Central Mesopotamia more than 9000 years ago. The ancient Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians all used sun-dried bricks for domestic and sometimes for public and religious buildings. In desert areas there are still examples of very large buildings, hundreds of years old, which are made of sun-dried bricks, and such bricks are even used today. It is also possible that some form of sun-dried clay shallow “dish” could have been used for dry goods or to support items for roasting or baking in an open fire. It may have been noticed that, in a sufficiently hot fire, these objects became more robust than sun-dried ones.

Sun-dried brick Great Mosque of Djenne

Sun-dried brick Great Mosque of Djenne

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