The beginning can be a good place to start
Updated: Oct 11, 2018
The beginning can be a good place to start and in ceramics that takes us to the basic but world-changing process of digging clay from the ground and applying water and heat. Discovered as early as 24,000 BC when animal and human figurines were made from clay and fired in kilns partially dug into the ground, the process led to the manufacturing of tiles almost 10,000 years later and the first use of functional pottery vessels for storing water and food around 10,000 or 9000 BC.
The word Ceramic is derived from a Greek word ‘Keramos’ meaning ‘potter’ or ‘pottery’, which itself originated from a Sanskrit root meaning ‘to burn’, or primarily ‘burnt stuff’. The importance of this burnt earth in history is not just within its development but also in its durability – fired clay lasts thousands of years virtually unchanged and so the discovery of ceramic objects in archaeological sites have played a large part in helping us find out the stories of past eras.
This particularly applies to the pioneering Greeks who developed by far the most sophisticated tradition of early pottery and whose vases survive in greater numbers than any other ceramics group of comparable age. Ceramics comprise a large part of the archaeological record of ancient Greece with over 1000,000 painted vases recorded in the Corpus vasorum antiquorum and are still the best guide available to understand the customary life and mind of the ancient Greeks.
Greek vases are essentially practical objects, made with specific purposes. Their makers were essentially craftsmen and the potters and vase painters did not have the same prestige as painters or sculptor but significantly by the 6th century it was normal for the potter to be named on the vase (with an inscription in black letters).
The T’ang dynasty is the first from which sufficient pottery survives for a Chinese style to become widely known in modern times. The T’ang dynasty’s place in the history books comes from an extremely significant discovery: a thin white translucent ware known as porcelain. There is no precise agreement on how to define porcelain (commonly described as white china so thin that it is translucent and makes a ringing sounds when struck) and so no consensus on the date of the first porcelain but wares produced in north China during the T’ang dynasty, from as early as the 7th century, have the characteristics. As porcelain was revealed to the west, the material opened eyes to the way in which pottery could create beautiful objects as well as practical items – long forgotten since the days of classical Greece.
When thinking about pottery now, especially with the eyes of our throwaway society, it is quite humbling to read into any instance within my extremely summarised history and realise the fascination and inventiveness throughout the history of mankind that have built up this art form. An intrigue and want to create with this basic but enabling material definitely has been passed down from person to person and pooled together from different cultures from all over the world.
At a time when artists are equipped by a catalytic freedom in the form that their work can take, the choice of one of one of the oldest art forms known to man feels particularly conflicting. Yet on closer inspection, feeling the growing hesitation to our ever-technological age, it is not hard to imagine why current times have seen ceramics bought back into the spotlight. Placed into our infamously information-sharing hands, with opportunities to learn and discover like never before, ceramics mix the opportunity to connect with historic processes with a newly discovered potential for experimentation - bringing us to today's exciting pivotal point.
Post Image: Terracotta kylix (drinking cup) (ca 540 BC), Terracotta, part of the Athenian collection at The MET