Notebook, 1993-


[From: Speight, Charlotte E. Hands In Clay, An Introduction to Ceramics. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1989.}

Working with Clay - An Introduction

By responding to the clay's plastic quality with these pinching gestures, you are repeating the actions of untold numbers of humans who have worked with clay even as far back in time as the Ice Age, Thirty-seven thousand to twelve thousand years ago. The earliest known examples of clay objects formed by human hands are representations of animals modeled on a clay bank in a cave in France and some fired clay animal figures and female human figure found at an Ice Age site in what is now Czechoslovakia. This very early use of fire to harden clay, though it predated the oldest pottery yet found, was apparently localized. Not until around 6000-4000 B.C. did the knowledge of how to fire clay become widespread and the craft of ceramics develop in a number of areas. Nevertheless, among the simple pots found in excavations of early sites around the world, archaeologists have frequently dug up small fired clay figures of women similar to the Ice Age figure, images that are believed to have had a magical or religious purpose linked to fertility worship.

The new craft of ceramics depended on the exploitation of several intrinsic qualities of clay--its plasticity, its ability to hold the shape into which it is formed as it dries, and the fact that heating it to maturity transforms it into a new, permanently hard substance. Learning to control fire and using it to create this new material was one of humanity's first great technical achievements. In many cultures, ceramics developed along with the craft of metallurgy, with the discoveries in each technology aiding the other.

The Knowledge and technique necessary to transform damp clay into a ceramic material developed at various times in different cultures, but no matter where the craft evolved, it influenced the development of that culture. For example, the knowledge of ceramics allowed the villagers to make vermin-proof storage jars, which meant they could store grain against future crop failures and accumulate surpluses with which to trade with neighboring communities . . . .

The close relationship between human hands and clay, along with the fact that a ceramic object is indestructible unless it has been crushed into such minute fragments that it cannot be repaired, has made it easier for archaeologists and historians to reconstruct how people lived in cultures that have long since disappeared. Even if a clay pot or sculpture has been broken, its shards can often be put together again . . . . pottery from six thousand years ago found in Sian, China, reveals techniques and painted designs similar to those in older pottery found in Russian Turkistan in western Asia, showing that interchanges occurred between the peoples of these areas . . . . The Sumerians used slabs of damp clay as writing surfaces, and the impression of the marking tool that a clerk pressed into a tablet around 2100 B.C. is still legible . . . . A potter who lived on Crete about fourteen hundred years ago left the enduring mark of this thumb in the damp clay of a large pitbos, or storage jar. Mallia, Crete . . . . [Speight, Charlotte E. Hands In Clay, An Introduction to Ceramics. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1989.]



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