Human civilization has evolved significantly over the course of its existence, from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies to modern day. However, one technology provided a spark unlike any other– the basis for further technological development and societal progression: pottery. Pottery is dynamic, multi purposed, and has undergone many changes over the course of 20,000 years. As one of the most important human inventions in history, pottery was the first truly man-made material, encouraging specialization and promoting trade, standardization, and the advancement of social interaction between groups. Without the introduction of this technology, humans may not have evolved out of the hunter-gather state they had been in for hundreds of thousands of years. Pottery provided the basis for human civilization and set the stage for the advancement in technology, social progression, and economic advancement– lifting humanity’s ancestors out of the wild and into the modern era.
The Age of Clay Pottery technology is a skilled craft that shows the adeptness of early humans in the manipulation of their surroundings and was the first technology in which humanity created a new material (Rice, 1987, p.3). The ability to manipulate nature and bend it to one’s will is a distinctively human characteristic. Humans have manipulated objects, like stones and bone, for hundreds of thousands of years; but ceramics were an entirely different technological beast to tackle. As Prudence Rice, a professor of anthropology and archaeology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, stated: “pottery was the first synthetic material humans created–artificial stone…” (Rice, 1987, p.3).
It marks the movement from simply honing found materials to physically creating a new one. Pottery production requires an advanced level of knowledge in soil composition, craftsmanship, and firing (Henderson, 2000). To create a ceramic object, a craftsman first needs one abundant raw material, clay. Clay is a product from silicate rocks with a high amount of alumina; when these rocks break down and dissolve over time, they become clay (Rice, 1987, p.
34; Henderson, 2000). The characteristic that separates clays from other types of soil is its plasticity. With the inclusion of water, clay can be molded. This plasticity allows clay to be formed into many shapes and styles for usage (Rice, 1987, p.58; Shepard, 1985).
This knowledge of clay types and their properties is immensely important to pottery production. A study of traditional potters in the modern day shows that craftsman may at times walk great distances to obtain a particular type of clay (Birmingham, 1975, p. 380). With the knowledge of clay and its properties comes the needed skill to craft and fire the desired vessel for pottery production. Many techniques are used in the formation of vessels; thumb-pinching, slab-building, coil-building, and moulding are all styles of clay manipulation (Henderson, 2000, p. 118-119). Once the vessel is formed, the piece must dry, a task often executed by leaving the vessel out so moisture within the object evaporates.
This process causes the vessel to shrink slowly– so it does not brake. Then it is subsequently fired it in an open fire or a kiln (Henderson, 2000, p. 135-137). This procedure hardens the clay and allows it to hold liquids without absorption. This complex process of pottery creation requires a high level of knowledge of the natural world and started early man on the path of creation. The ability to manipulate common material and form it into something entirely new was an advancement in human technological ability and a kornerstone in how humans interacted with their environment. The Benefits for Early Societies Pottery was an important step in not only the advancement of human technology, but also the advancement of human society. Through its unique benefits in cooking and storage, pottery reshaped humans’ relationship with food and with each other.
Pottery was first developed during the paleolithic period, and some of the earliest examples of pottery came from Xianrendong Cave in China. This case study, conducted by reaserchers Xiaohong Wu and Chi Zhang from Peking University, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, and Trina Arpin from Boston University, Yan Pan from Fudan University, and Ofer Bar-Yosef from Harvard University, provided insight into the practical benefits of pottery in early hunter-gatherer societies. The cave, which resides in Wannian County in the northern Jiangxi Province in China, was excavated by multiple groups from 1961 to 2000, and again in 2009 when researchers reopened two trenches from earlier excavations (Wu et al., 2012, p. 1697). Many pieces of broken pottery were discovered in Xianrendong Cave, the oldest of which has been carbon-dated from 20,000 to 19,000 B.
P.– which predates agriculture by nearly 10,000 years (Wu et al., 2012, p.
1696). The inhabitants of this cave were part of a hunter-gatherer society, and so the discovery of these ceramic vessels held many implications for advancements in their lifestyle– the first of which was storage. The ability to hold and store objects is a key concept for what makes humans human, giving humans the advantages of developing ownership, building resources, and keeping items for an extended period of time. Particularly beneficial would be the possibility of food storage, an extremely useful ability during hard times.
This time period, 20,000 to 19,000 B.P., was the height of the last ice age. Regional food resources were less plentiful: the ability to store and save food helped early societies through periods of food scarcity (Wu et al., 2012, p. 1699). Many sherds found inside the cave also pointed to the utilization of pottery as a cooking apparatus, as shown by the prominence of scorch-marks on their exterior surfaces (Wu et al.
, 2012, p. 1697). Cooking has many benefits.
First, it increases a person’s energy intake from many different types of foods (Wu et al., 2012, p. 1699). In their book, Ceramics before Farming: The dispersal of pottery among prehistoric Eurasian hunter-gatherers, Peter Jordan–a research coordinator at the University of Oxford– and Marek Zvelebil an archaeologist– showed the myriad benefits of pottery for a hunter-gatherer society.
Societies with pottery technology saw improvements in nutrition, health, and infant mortality rates; and they could create new types of food, like soups. They also increased food protection from scavenging animals (Jordan and Zvelebil, 2009, p. 55). Jordan and Zvelebil also suggested that population densities would increase, as well as “population regionalization and territoriality” (Jordan and Zvelebil, 2009, p. 55). The usage of pottery in early societies may have kick-started the slow revolution of hunter-gathering into agriculture and sedentism (Wu et al., 2012 p.
1700). The fragmented poetry remains from Xianrendong Cave shows pottery technology in its infancy and its many benefits to early human society.Social Complexity and Standardization The earliest societies using pottery technology lived in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; however, this technology provided advantages which likely enhanced early humans social complexity.
As a general rule, a political economy requires surplus to exist (Pullen, 2010, p. 206), however, this surplus is difficult to obtain in a subsistence society. The emergence of pottery allowed early humans to build up and store goods as well as standardize and measure these goods. Pottery gave showed humans the potential for transitioning out of a subsistence economy into a political one. Once this new social and economic structure was achieved, pottery retained its importance in humanity’s earliest political societies. Old Kingdom Egypt was an early society where the economy was based around the exchange of goods: most notably bread and beer (Warden, 2014, p.
57-58). Ceramics were immensely important for this early economic system because they allowed for the standardized measurement of these goods. Excavations, conducted by M. Lehner at Heit el-Ghurab in 1988, tied bread manufacturers to a state payment of workers and found bread molds to make up 56.46% of their excavation assemblage (Warden, 2014, p.
58-60). Without pottery, the goods exchanged in early economies, such as bread and beer, could not be standardized and would make the formation of complex socio-political societies much more difficult. The Introduction of SpecializationAn additional way in which pottery provided the basis for civilization is through specialization. A fully functioning sedentary society demands that people accomplish many tasks; therefore, pottery took on many forms to fulfill different functions. In doing so, it also obtained many personal, regional, and stylized designs. From cooking pots to water jugs and fermentation jars, to ritual objects, pottery is one of history’s most specialized tools, with many stylistic and compositional differences. Some differences are merely stylistic, where some –like clay composition– affect its usage (Simms, Bright and Ugan, 1997, p 782).
However, many social implications correlate with this specialization. As one of the most abundant archaeological materials, scientists can track pottery throughout the histories of many civilizations. To understand how past cultures may have used and interacted with pottery, researchers look to modern comparisons to receive an ethnoarchaeological interpretation of this relationship. Two case studies show how the specialization of pottery can affect the social usage among and between village societies, the first involving potters from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal and the second involving potters from the Kalinga region of the philippines (Birmingham, 1975) (Stark, 1991). In her case study, “Traditional potters of the Kathmandu Valley: an ethnoarchaeological study,” Judy Birmingham visits two communities from the Kathmandu Valley who produce the pottery used throughout their neighboring mountain villages: Thimi and Bhaktapur (Birmingham, 1975, p. 370). These villages use traditional methods of pottery production from clay gathering and pot formation to distribution (Birmingham, 1975, p.
380-382). These villages produce at least fifteen distinct types of clay vessels, each designed for specific use as cooking pots, water pots, milk pots, domestic bowls, decanters, rice spirit pots, lamps, offering pots, pickle jars, and more (Birmingham, 1975, p. 372). This type of variation found in these modern villages shows the variability of pottery and its many functions. Such design specialization was seen in cultures even into the prehistoric period (Gibson and Woods, 1997).
In Kathmandu Valley, design specialization was an important aspect of pottery’s relation to humans because it increased pottery’s usefulness and range of abilities (Birmingham, 1975, p. 371). When early societies advanced, the citizens needed new tools to fulfill jobs that were not needed before, such as the long term storage and transportation of liquids. Pottery allowed ancient people to perform tasks that would not be possible otherwise. In addition to the Kathmandu potters, the Dalupa village potters– from the Kalinga region in the Philippines– shine light on another aspect of specialization that pottery gave to past societies–regional and community specialization.
Similarly to the Kumanthu Valley potters, potters from the Kalinga region practice traditional methods of pottery production (Stark, 1991 p. 66-67). Community specialization happens when demand exists for an item or style that only a specific area or culture creates. Miriam Stark claims that “comparative ethnographic data indicate that community specialization is common worldwide, and that settlements involved in this arrangement often become interdependent” (Stark, 1991 p. 69).
In this example, Dalupe is the only village left who specializes in pottery, due to the environmental diversity of the region; other villages are better located to harvest crops or lumber, so Dalupe specialises in pottery. Therefore, the whole of the society becomes interdependent to meet the needs of each community (Stark, 1991 p. 70-71).
This shows how an ancient society might function with an early trade economy; and with pottery as one of the first specialized crafts, the craft would have boosted early society’s social and economic structure. Stark further states that: “many archaeological models of specialization posit a direct link between craft specialization and the emergence of social complexity, implying a strong causal link between productive specialization and political administration” (Stark, 1991 p. 73). This link strongly supports the idea that prehistoric pottery technology indirectly led to the eventual formation of complex-state societies and economies. Growth and TradeThe economic growth pottery provided to humanity did not stop with local or regional economies; pottery indirectly led to the revolution of advanced economies and large scale trade networks.
Pottery affected local and regional trade, as seen in the Kathmandu and Kalinga case studies, because pottery is an art form with many variances and styles. The finished product changes depending on clay type, firing temperature, kiln style, ethnic-cultural artistic styles, and decorative technologies, such as slips and glazes (Henderson, 2000). These aspects affect the style and quality of pottery and is why, over the course of history, cultures and societies have created many unique styles of pottery.
This reality was crucial to the building of early civilizations economys largely because pottery variation helped to form regional identities (Bolger and Maguire, 2014, p. 103). Civilizations build around common and shared cultural practices and styles, so these regional identities likely aid in coalitioning growing civilizations. Further proof can be seen in regional trade of ceramic vessels from early societies. The Burnt Village case study in northern Syria shows that, even in the Neolithic Period, ceramics were traded from far distances. Some pottery originated as far as c.
500 km away (Bolger and Maguire, 2014, p. 103). The Romans constituted an even greater scale of this trade, and built a large trading network across their vast empire. Pottery was a heavily traded item throughout this empire; when Rome conquered Britain, a vast amount of imported pottery came in from outside of the island: samian wares, Lyons fine wares, and other forms flooded into the region (Anderson, 1984). Without pottery and its initial impact on local economies, trade-based civilizations and large scale economies, like the Romans, may have never formed. Pottery’s introduction and its subsequent effect on local economies allowed for civilizations to grow, prosper, and connect with one another in ways that would have otherwise been inconceivable. Pottery forms the basis of human civilization and allowed humankind to progress from early hunter-gatherer societies into advanced civilizations.
The simple invention of a ceramic vessel altered ancient people’s lifestyles, promoted better health, allowed people to safely store food and other items for extended periods of time, allowed for the building of complex social structures and political societies, promoted specialization and standardization, aided in building regional and cultural identities, and promoted economic integration and trade. Pottery has done much over its roughly 20,000 year history to progress civilization; without it, humanity likely would not be at the level of sophistication it is today. Through archaeological research and discovery, the historical importance of pottery over humanity’s journey into the present is vibrantly exposed.
The introduction of pottery provided the basis for human civilization, which subsequently allowed for the progression of technological, social, and economic advancement into modernity.