Clay & Pottery in the History
di Gino Carbonaro
The progress of mankind is composed of an unbroken
chain of discoveries. Each new discovery has contributed to
improve his quality of life. Among the great discoveries of
mankind, there is fire. FIRE provided ancient man with the
to heat himself
to have light at night,
to cook food
to defend him from wild animals
to melt and mould metals.
Later, agriculture was another great discovery. Man
discovered that by planting a seed in the ground he could
reproduce food. Thus, he could control the reproduction of cereals, also vines, olive trees and other plants.
agriculture was born.
Before the discovery of Agriculture, nomadic man lived on
what nature spontaneously offered him: herbs, roots, fruits,
He had to explore to source food for survival.
With the discovery of agriculture, man learned to till the
soil and plant seeds; he was then forced to settle down in
order to protect and tend his plants and wait to harvest
His production of wheat, barley, wine and oil needed to be
conserved. They required containers.
This need was satisfied by the discovery of clay and
The first creation in clay was probably a figure in human
form, maybe a woman with a large posterior, indicating the
great need of abundance which means survival.
Primitive man believed clay held some kind of magic
powers, as it could be shaped into almost anything he had in
mind. Even today we often refer to the artisan who models
clay as “a creator”.
By mixing water with clay, man created his first bowl.
By putting it next to the fire he discovered that it dried and
hardened, becoming watertight /capable of holding liquids.
Even today, this simple object is still very popular with
potters, as it was also a favorite of Greek potters in the past,
who used to say to their students: "Learn to make a bowl
first! Then you will go forward".
After the bowl, other innovations followed. Urns shaped like
a large egg which could contain liquids.
These vessels were magnificent containers, capable of
holding oil, water, wine, cereals and protecting them from
the attack of rats, for example.
With clay, man also made lamps, pots, tiles, sarcophagus
and bricks for building houses.
CLAY, this pliable dough which could be shaped in the
form of anything man needed, started being used more
and more extensively. Without the discovery of clay and
the objects man created with it, agriculture could not have
developed as it has.
Interestingly, the development of agriculture is
responsible for the birth of our first human societies, and
this is because economies based on agriculture are also
based on cooperation between men.
Men who lived together needed laws, which needed to be
inscribed on some kind of support, on stone, on leather and
later on clay tablets.
Before that, for example, the Ten Commandments, the very
first laws we know of,
were inscribed on stone tablets.
The work needed to prepare the stone tablet and inscribe
was very laborious.
One thousand and seven hundred years before Christ,
the Assyrian King Hammurabi dictated further laws which
were then inscribed on layers of soft clay, simply by using a
sharpened point of cane. This replaced the laborious work of
The use of clay tablets shows the leap forward in civilization.
For that time in history, the discovery of clay as a support
for writing, can be compared to today's invention of
computers. To prepare a sheet of clay was perhaps easier
than it is to manufacture paper today.
Important books of ancient knowledge and legal deeds
of ownership were quickly written on clay tablets. Clay was
also used to make lamps, chairs, bricks, floor and roof tiles,
and all kinds of utensils such as plates, bowls, and so on.
Despite the discovery of plastic, all civilizations continue
to go through the "Age of terracotta".
Japan and Saharan African civilization made clay
artifacts fourteen thousand years before Christ. Since
ancient times, Chinese, Egyptian, Mayan and Aztec peoples
have used clay for different purposes.
The Great Wall of China, built by the first Chinese emperor
Qin Shi Huang is eight thousand, eight hundred and fifty
two kilometers long and ten meters high. It is entirely made
of large terracotta bricks.
The same Emperor also built an entire army of life-size
terracotta soldiers and horses to protect him in the afterlife.
Many Assyrian-Babilonese bas-reliefs and Roman theatres,
like the Taormina theatre in Sicily, are made of clay.
The immense production of vases and urns of the Aegean-
Cretan civilization was developed in the southern part of
Sicily by the Greek occupation, five centuries before Christ.
From ancient times, clay has been used for
pharmacological purposes and today it is widely used in
There is something magical and sublime about clay for
both the primitive man and also for the potter of today.
The relationship between man and clay is not the same as
that between man and stone. The sculptor is forced to use
metal tools to engrave stone. The relationship man-stone is
On the other hand, the relationship man-clay, is an act of
love, a warm and sensual hand-made experience, without
battling. Clay simulates the best part of life. The possibility
of gently molding, with love, to materialize and shape an
idea which comes from within the creator of all the existing materials, clay is the most
loved. According to the old Testament, God chose clay to
create Adam and Eve. God first modelled his creation, then
He gave it the breath of life.
Perhaps every time the potter models clay he re-lives the
moment of divine creation.
Gino CarbonaroTraduzione in inglese Claire Thomson