EVOLUTION OF ART
Ancient Pottery (from 18,000 BCE)
WHAT IS ART?
Pottery, also called ceramics or ceramic art - the creation of objects, mainly cooking or storage vessels, made out of clay and then hardened by heat - was the first functional art to emerge during the Upper Paleolithic, after body painting. The earliest form was Chinese Pottery, which first appeared in Jiangxi, to the south of the Yangzi River basin. Like cave painting, as well as other types of prehistoric art, the invention and development of pottery is a reflection of social, economic and environmental conditions - many of which are still poorly understood - and a significant indicator of a society's cultural development. Moreover, while the first ceramic vessels must have provided Stone Age hunter-gatherers with several new opportunities for cooking and consuming foods, we have almost no idea of how early pots were used. In this article we focus attention on ceramic crafts during the period of prehistory and classical antiquity. Meantime, to see how the evolution of pottery fits into the chronology of prehistory, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
There are three main types of ceramic ware: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain, categorized according to the clay used to make them, and the temperature required to fire them. (A) Earthenware is the oldest and easiest type of pottery. It is also the softest, being heated at the lowest temperature (typically between 1000 and 1200 degrees Celsius). It includes maiolica, faience, and delft. (B) Stoneware is a denser type of pottery that is fired at a higher temperature (between 1100 and 1300 degrees Celsius). In addition, stoneware is typically coated with a glaze of powdered glass and fired again at a higher temperature. This causes the glaze to fuse with the clay body, creating a vitreous, impermeable surface. Where earthenware usually ranges in colour from buff to dark red, stoneware varies from grey to buff, or even green - as in the case of celadon. (C) Porcelain - of which Chinese Porcelain remains the finest and most valuable variant - is finer than stoneware, makes a ringing tone when tapped, and has a characteristic translucence when held up to the light.
Pottery can be decorated in a variety of ways. (1) It can be glazed, using a range of mineral-based colour pigments. The addition of iron oxide, for instance, creates the greenish-coloured glaze characteristic of Chinese celadon pottery. (2) It can be hand-painted before (or after) glazing, a method known as underglaze (or overglaze) decoration. (3) Slip painting is another decorative technique, whereby a thin combination of water and clay, called slip, is applied to the vessel's surface like paint. (4) Engraving or incising patterns or images in the clay surface is another type of decoration. (5) Patterns can also be applied to the outer surface of the pot by wrapping the vessel in a mold or with coiled basketry, or by impressing or stamping patterns on the raw clay body. See also: Decorative Art.
According to archeological evidence, pottery first appeared during the era of Paleolithic art in East Asia (China, Japan, and the Amur River basin in Eastern Russia), before eventually spreading to the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin during the Neolithic period, thousands of years later.
The first ceramic sculpture - the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, dating to about 25,000 BCE - was unearthed at a Stone Age settlement in the Czech Republic, but the first ceramic pots are the Xianrendong Cave Pottery (18,000 BCE), found in northeastern Jiangxi Province in southeast China. Up until the Jiangxi discovery, the earliest art of this type was the Yuchanyan Cave pottery (16,000 BCE) discovered in China's Hunan province. In Europe, the oldest pottery was developed in the Czech Republic. Another very ancient example is Vela Spila Pottery (15,500 BCE) from Croatia and Amur River Basin Pottery dating to 14,300 BCE.
Archeologists are unsure as to exactly why pottery started in China. The current theory is that pottery production was caused by climatic conditions. The Xianrendong pottery, for instance, was created about the time of the Last Gacial Maximum, when temperatures in East Asia were exceptionally low. In order to survive, people had to extract the maximum calorific and nutritional value from their food. One solution was to make pots to cook with, since cooking food helps to boost nutrient intake from starchy plants and meat, hence the invention of pottery. Other factors would also have contributed to the emergence of Chinese earthenware. To begin with, the country is richly endowed with the raw materials (clay, kaolin, feldspar, quartz) needed to make ceramics. Also, the relatively dense Chinese population, especially in the southeast of the country, would also have been a factor. However, we still don't know the full story as to why Chinese art in this field was so far ahead of its European counterparts. It is also worth noting that porcelain was produced in China as early as the 9th century, but Europeans proved unable to make any until the 18th century. For a specific look at the chronological development of Chinese pottery, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present) and also Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE).
Up until the 1990s, most archeologists and anthropologists believed that pottery was first made during the period of Neolithic art (c.8,000-2,500 BCE), after the Ice Age ended, when humans turned from hunter-gathering to farming and animal husbandry. However, the discoveries at Xianrendong and Yuchanyan, together with the cache of Jomon pottery discovered at Odaiyamamoto I site (14,540 BCE) at Aomori Prefecture, Japan, prove beyond doubt that ceramic pottery was being made ten thousand years earlier, during the European era of Solutrean art (20,000-15,000 BCE) - a surprising development given the relative absence of Chinese cave art during this period. Moreover, with better dating techniques being developed, it is probable that we will find even older sites from the Middle period of the Upper Paleolithic.
For primitive Stone Age cooking pots, all that was needed was a supply of clay and a source of heat. Thus most Chinese pottery of the Upper Paleolithic (until about 10,000 BCE) was roughly made earthenware, fired in bonfires for a short time at temperatures up to 900 degrees Celsius. Vessels were made with round bottoms thus avoiding any sharp angles or rims that would be more prone to cracking. Glazes were not used, while decoration was limited to the use of coiled "ropes" and basketry. (In Japan, from about 14,000 BCE, the "Jomon" culture was named after the decorative technique of leaving impressions on the outside of the pot, by pressing rope into the clay before firing it.)
Although Chinese pottery had been made continuously since 18,000 BCE, it remained relatively primitive. During the era of Chinese Neolithic art, however, the introduction of the potter's wheel and better kilns, as well as the emergence of parallel technologies in smelting and metallurgy, helped to improve the range and quality of all types of ceramic ware.
Early Neolithic (c.7500-5000)
The earliest Chinese Neolithic pots were red-coloured earthenware, hand-made (by coiling), fired in bonfires. Decoration was limited to simple designs applied by stamping and impressing techniques. Early Neolithic cultures in China include:
Nanzhuangtou Culture (9500-7700
BCE) southern Hebei.
Middle Neolithic (c.5000-4000 BCE)
Chinese pottery in this period is exemplified by deep-bodied jugs, red or red-brown vessels and amphorae. The East was noted for its fine clay or sand-tempered pottery decorated with geometric markings, as well as appliqued bands. Around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, potters specialized in black pottery. Middle Neolithic cultures in China include:
Xinle Culture (5500-4800
BCE) lower Liao River on the Liaodong Peninsula.
Late Neolithic (c.4000-2000 BCE)
Chinese Late Neolithic ceramics feature a variety of delicate, burnished, ceremonial vessels, illustrating the "Painted Pottery" culture of the period. They included highly polished bowls of red pottery, with black dots, spirals and flowing lines. For a comparison, see also: Ancient Persian Art (from 3500 BCE).
By 3000 BCE, Chinese ceramicists had attained a craftsmanship and elegance which was quite exceptional. Designs included gourd-shaped panels, sawtooth lines, radial spirals, and zoomorphic figures. The predominant Longshan Culture (3000-2000 BCE) was characterized by its lustrous, eggshell-thin black pottery, and its proficiency in componential construction - in which spouts, legs, and handles were added to the basic form.
Daxi Culture (5000-3000 BCE)
Middle Yangtze River region.
Between 18,000 and 12,000 BCE the art of pottery spread from the China mainland across East Asia. Thereafter it appeared in Japan (by 14,500 BCE), in the Amur River Basin (by 14,000 BCE), in sub-Saharan Africa (by 9500 BCE), in Persia (by 8000 BCE), in the Middle East (by 7000 BCE), in the Americas (by 5500 BCE) and in the Indian sub-continent (by 5500 BCE). Of course, whether it evolved independently or was 'exported' by migrants from China, is not known. Strangely, pottery never caught on in Neolithic Australia - a destination for several waves of prehistoric migrants from South-East Asia - as there is no evidence of pottery sherds at sites of Aboriginal rock art during this period.
Pottery spread from China along the Amur River basin into the Amurskaya Oblast, in Russia, and across the sea to Japan. In the Russian Amur region, pottery-making has been dated and recorded at the Gasya and the Khummi sites (14,000 to 13,200 BCE). This stage of primitive Upper Paleolithic ceramics was followed by a transitional period (11,200-6000 BCE) before Neolithic Amur pottery became established. In any event, pottery was produced throughout the Russian Far East by 6000 BCE, notably by the Gromatukha culture and the Novopetrovsk culture.
In Siberia, the oldest known pottery comes from the Ust-Karenga archeological site, near Lake Baikal, dating to between 11,800 and 10,500 BCE. This is not far from the site of the Mal'ta Venuses (c.20,000 BCE), which were discovered near Usolsky (Usol'ye), about 60 miles northwest of Irkutsk.
Ancient Japanese ceramic ware - known as Jomon Pottery - is the second oldest type of ceramic after that of China. The "Jomon" period of Japanese art equates to the Neolithic period, and means "rope-patterned" in Japanese, after the patterns that are pressed into the clay. The Oldest Japanese pots (Incipient Jomon culture) were discovered at the Odai Yamamoto I site, Aomori Prefecture, dating to about 14,540 BCE. Sherds of ancient Japanese pottery have also been found at the Kamino site in southwestern Japan, dating to 14,000-13,000 BCE; and in a cave on the northwest coast of modern day Kyushu, dating to 12,700 BCE. The potter's wheel was unknown at this time, so all Jomon pots were made by hand. The clay was combined with a variety of additives, including mica, lead, fibers, and crushed shells. After the clay object was formed, tools were used to smooth the surfaces. Then, after being dried, it was heated in a bonfire at a temperature of about 900 degrees Celsius.
Jomon vessels are divided into five main categories: "fukabachi" pottery (jars, deep bowls); "hachi" (medium-depth bowls); "asabachi" (shallow bowls); "tsubo" (containers with long necks and narrow mouths); and "chuko" (containers with spouts). The main function of Jomon pottery was food storage. But researchers have discovered that Jomon pots and jars were also used for storing corpses of infants and small children.
The Jomon period is traditionally divided into six phases:
Incipient Jomon (c.14,500-8,000
Although ceramic sculpture has been known in eastern Europe (Czech Republic) since about 25,000 BCE (Venus of Dolni Vestonice), indicating that European hunter-gatherers were familiar with fired clay objects from at least the Gravettian period onwards, pottery is not known to have been made in Europe before about 5,000 BCE. [Note: There is a significant difference between low quality fired clay used for sculpture and high quality ceramic ware.]
In 2006, however, archeologists discovered sherds of Paleolithic pottery in Vela Spila cave on Korcula Island, off the coast of Croatia, dating to between 15,500 and 13,000 BCE. These fragments, which are now on display at the Vela Luka Centre for Culture, appear to be the oldest examples of pottery in Europe, although it is possible they are more sculptural than utilitarian. Jakas Cave, another Paleolithic site on Korcula Island, near the village of Zrnovo, is also being excavated.
In any event, pottery came to Europe from the Middle East during the seventh millennium BCE. Influenced by techniques arriving from present-day Syria and Iraq, the Greek region of Thessalia is the first region of Europe known to have made pottery, around 6300 BCE. Over the next millennium this Greek Neolithic culture, develops into the more substantial Sesklo culture, which is the origin of Neolithic expansion across the European continent. Sesklo culture expanded northwards via the Tisza and Danube rivers, developing into the proto-Linear Pottery culture and the smaller Hamangia culture (Romania). (See also the Hamangia ceramic sculpture "Thinker of Cernavoda", 5000 BCE.) The former then gives birth to two cultural movements - the Eastern Linear Pottery Culture (c.5000 BCE) and the Western Linear Pottery Culture (c.4500 BCE). The Eastern branch spreads into Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine; the Western branch extends into the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, and then France, Belgium and the Netherlands. A separate strand of development - known as the Cardium Pottery Culture - led from Greece westwards into the Mediterranean and Adriatic, spreading into the Balkans, Italy, the Rhone Valley in France, and Eastern Spain. All this Neolithic cultural expansion across Europe took place between approximately 6000 and 4500 BCE.
The Kingdom of Ancient Persia (modern day Iran) was situated plumb in the middle of the overland trade routes which headed westwards out of China. Not surprisingly therefore, pottery reached (and became established in) Persia no later than 8,000 BCE, many centuries before it appeared in the Middle East. Ancient pottery has been found, for instance, at numerous sites in western Persia, including Ganj Dareh (Valley of Treasure) and Teppe Sarab in Kermanshah Province, as well as sites in and around the Zagros Mountains. Human and animal terracotta figurines were a particular specialty of Ganj Dareh. Pottery centres were also found at Susa and Chogha Mish, in south west Iran.
What became apparent, however, was that pottery improved as the Paleolithic gave way to the Mesolithic and ultimately the Neolithic. In effect, as people began to adopt the more settled agricultural lifestyle of the Neolithic, significant advances were seen in pottery production. The first kilns appeared around 6000 BCE in the Middle East (Yarim Tepe, Iraq) - first pit-kilns, then stone-lined kilns - enabling much higher temperatures to be reached, thus improving the reliability and durability of pots. In addition, the potter's wheel was invented and developed in Mesopotamia (and around the world), between 6000 and 4000 BCE, leading to a surge in ceramic vessels of all types and sizes. (See: Mesopotamian Art 4500-539 BCE.) As cities began to form in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, demand rose for all types of ceramic products - including terracotta sculpture, as well as floor and roof tiles - and techniques improved accordingly.
In the Middle East, around Greater Mesopotamia, Neolithic pottery production can be categorized into four main periods: the Hassuna period (7000-6500 BCE), the Halaf period (6500-5500 BCE), the Ubaid period (5500-4000 BCE), and the Uruk period (4000-3100 BCE). The earliest types of vessel (c.7000 BCE) were hand-formed from slabs of reddish-brown clay, and were left undecorated and unglazed. But by 6000 BCE, a range of decorative techniques were introduced, involving intricate painted designs.
Hassuna pottery (7000-6500 BCE), named after the type site Tell Hassuna, emerged in central Mesopotamia and is characterized by its distinctive cream slip with reddish paint and linear designs.
Halaf pottery (6500-5500 BCE), named for the type site of Tell Halaf in northeastern Syria, introduced more colours patterned with geometric and animal motifs in orange, red, brown and black. Late Halaf-style pottery was exceptional for its high quality polychrome painting, typically polished to a glossy sheen. Indeed, Halafian pottery achieved a level of technical sophistication, not seen until later Greek pottery in the form of Corinthian and Attic wares. Halaf pottery is also known for its white ware with intricate patterns of black dots, as well as its jars with flared necks and oval mouths.
Ubaid pottery (5500-4000 BCE), named after the type site Tell al-Ubaid, near Ur, was the first pottery to predominate throughout Mesopotamia. In general, Ubaid ceramics are decorated in a more subdued way, with little of the Halaf glossiness and colour. Instead it is noted for its more austere style of buff or greenish coloured plates and vessels decorated with zigzags, chevrons, parallel lines and other geometric patterns. Later Ubaid ceramics were wheel-made, typically in a greenish colour, decorated with broad black horizontal lines and simple curves. Shapes included cups with flat bottoms.
Uruk pottery (4000-3100 BCE), named after the Sumerian city of Uruk, coincided with the emergence of urban life in Mesopotamia, and later Sumeria. During this time, pottery became the predominant medium of Mesopotomian art: production became more specialised as potter's wheels became faster turning, and craftsmen achieved better control of the firing process. Kiln design also improved. The advent of Chalcolithic metal smelting technology also led to an improvement in pottery techniques, as did the relocation of pottery workshops to sites on the outskirts of settlements. Uruk ceramic ware is famous for its highly polished monochrome ware, made with red or grey slips, but otherwise relatively undecorated. Uruk-style jars are characterized by large mouths, short necks and fat bodies.
By 4000 BCE, more advanced kiln designs could fire clay ware up to 1,200 degrees Celsius which triggered a range of new technical possibilities. A significant amount of pottery was now produced by small groups of potters, typically for small cities, rather than by individual artisans making ceramic containers for a family. As the region became wealthier and more organized, the types and characteristics of ceramic vessels became more varied, and demand rose. More moulds were employed in order to speed up production, and glazing became widespread.
Neolithic pottery was being practiced in India no later than 5500 BCE, during the Mehrgarh Period II (5500-4800 BCE), notably in present-day northwest India and Pakistan. [The Mehrgarh I culture (70005500 BCE) was aceramic.] Pottery developed further during the Merhgarh Period III (4800-3500 BCE), and especially during the Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished along the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers. Also called the Harappan Civilization, after the type site Harappa, in the Punjab, this civilization lasted from about 3500 to 1300 BCE, passing through five phases of ceramic production. In 1300 BCE it was followed by the Iron Age Indo-Gangetic traditions of "painted grey ware" and "northern black polished ware". See: India: Painting & Sculpture.
Neolithic pottery in North and South America - including cooking vessels, storage vessels, funerary urns, domestic tiles, terracotta sculpture - dates from at least the sixth millennium BCE.
In South America, the highest quality pots was made in the Andes and on the west coast, notably in Peru and Bolivia. Vessels and jugs were typically decorated with painted figures of animals and humans. Pots from Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile were less well crafted. The earliest South American ceramics, excavated from the Pedra Pintada Cave, near Santarem, Brazil, were carbon-dated to 5500 BCE. Pots from Taperinho, also near Santarem, have been dated to 5000 BCE. From the Amazon basin, pottery spread west and south, and eventually north through Mesoamerica. Alaka culture pottery made in Guyana has been dated to 4000 BCE, while San Jacinto culture ceramic vessels in Colombia date to about 4500 BCE, and at Puerto Hormiga in Colombia, to about 3800 BCE. In Ecuador, pottery first appeared during the Valdivia culture about 3200 BCE, and in the Pandanche culture in Peru about 2450 BCE. By the end of the third millennium BCE it was being made in Central America, spreading to Panama by 2140 BCE, Costa Rica by 1890 BCE, southern Mexico (Purron tradition) by 1805 BCE, Guatemala by 1680 BCE, and northern Mexico (Chajil tradition) by 1600 BCE.
Pottery began in North America more than a thousand years before it emerged in Mexico, suggesting either, that it reached the USA by sea from a separate continent, or that it was invented independently by indigenous North Americans. Thus ceramic pots from the Savannah River valley in Georgia and South Carolina have been dated to about 2890 BCE, while cooking vessels from the Norwood and Orange cultures in Florida date to 2460 BCE. See also: Pre-Columbian Art (c.1200 BCE-1535 CE)
The oldest known pottery in Africa comes from Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2007, Swiss archeologists found ceramic sherds at Ounjougou, in Central Mali, dating back to at least 9500 BCE. Pot-making in this zone of Africa has long been associated with the proliferation of Bantu languages, but little research has been undertaken to date.
Two pottery sites of importance in Central Sudan include Khartoum Hospital and Shaheinab, the two type-sites of the Khartoum Mesolithic and Khartoum Neolithic, respectively. The sherds of pottery at these sites belonged to funerary vessels and were found in burial pits next to skeletal remains. The vessels were characterized by wavy line and dotted wavy line decoration.
Another African site of Neolithic pottery is the Takarkori rock shelter in the Acacus mountains of southern Libya, from where pottery shards dating to 5200 BCE were exavated by British archeologists. In the semi-arid Sahel border region between the Sahara desert and tropical Africa (covering parts of the Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea), various sites have yielded fragments of pottery dating back to 3000 BCE. See also: African Art.
Arguably the most famous type of African pottery is Egyptian faience, a non-clay-based ceramic mastered by Egyptian ceramicists, although it originated at Ur, in Mesopotamia. The oldest faience workshop, complete with advanced lined brick kilns, has been discovered at the sacred Egyptian city of Abydos, dating to 5500 BCE. Egyptian Faience was made by crushing together quartz/sand crystals with calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and copper oxide. The resulting paste was formed into shapes, then fired. During heating, the shapes would harden and develop bright colours and a glassy finish. The Egyptian word for faience means "shining", and faience ceramics were believed to reflect the light of immortality. See also: Egyptian Art (3100 BCE - 395 CE).
In the west, ancient pottery reached its apogee in classical Greece, in the manufacture and decoration of vases, amphoras and other objects. For the full story see Greek Pottery (from 3000 BCE onwards).
The origins of Greek excellence date to the period 3000-2000 BCE when Aegean art superceded Thessaly as the leading pottery centre. Minoan art also contributed to this Aegean renaissance, as did new forms of pottery from the Cyclades, including Sesklo ware, with its geometric decoration and marine motifs. But the finest work was done in Crete during the Minoan Protopalatial period (2000-1800 BCE), when the magnificent palaces of Phaistos and Knossos were constructed, and also during the Neopalatial period (1650-1425 BCE). Minoan pottery was highly sought after throughout the Mediterranean. Mycenean art, which replaced Minoan culture after Crete was overrun by the Myceneans, around 1400 BCE, proved lacklustre. Then in the 12th century BCE, Greece was occupied by invading tribes from the North, which led to the collapse of arts and crafts in most areas of the country.
The resurgence of Greek art began about 900 BCE, with the appearance of Geometric Style Greek pottery (c.900-725 BCE), which produced some of the finest works of Greek ceramic art. This was followed from about 725 onwards, by the Oriental Style of Greek pottery (c.725-600 BCE), influenced by Greek colonies in Asia Minor. On the Greek mainland the two major centres of pottery were Athens and Corinth, whose rivalry affected developments across the board.
The high point of Greek pottery occurred during the period 600-480 BCE, with the development of "black figure" pottery - in which designs were painted in black onto red clay vases - followed by "red figure" pottery in which the undesigned area was filled in with black paint, to contrast with the incised designs coloured in red. See also: Greek Sculpture (from 650 BCE).
Except for the White Ground technique, Greek pottery during the Classical Period (c.480-330 BCE) proved to be an anti-climax. The medium was becoming stale with fewer opportunities for experimentation. Greek ceramic art fell away in both technique and creative merit, sustained only by a number of regional styles in the colonies, although Hellenistic pottery and painting continued to exert a major influence over emerging ceramic centres of Etruscan art, and on Roman art until the Imperial era.
Xia Dynasty culture (2100-1600 BCE), from the first Iron Age dynasty in China, is noted for its white pottery sometimes decorated with turquoise and seashells. The earliest high-fired stoneware pots were made in China, during the period of Shang dynasty art (1700-1050 BCE), at sites like Yinxu and Erligang. Chinese master potters continued to refine high-temperature methods, along with different types of clays, until eventually they developed true porcelain. Shang ceramicists also made notable advances in high-fired glazes. During the following era of Zhou Dynasty Art (1050-221 BCE) the variety of ceramic objects was greatly extended, and production techniques were enhanced. In pottery centres along the valley of the lower Yangtze River, a porcellaneous stoneware was produced - a forerunner of the celadon glaze developed later by Tang dynasty potters. Han Dynasty Art (206 BCE - 220 CE) was responsible for two sorts of glazed ware. In the north, a bottle-green, low-fired lead glaze was produced; in the eastern Zhejiang region, a high-temperature brownish-olive glaze was made. In addition to advances in porcelain and high-fired ceramics, the period 2000 BCE-200 CE in China saw advances across the board in the manufacture of ceramic pottery, including: firing methods and kiln technology; the creation and use of slips and glazes at varying temperatures; the use and development of various types of mineral pigments; and an increase in the range of ceramic vessels, notably in the area of ceremonial and funerary vessels. For more about China's mastery of clay-fired terracotta technology, see: Chinese Terracotta Army (c.246-208 BCE).
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