Home > Free Essays > Art > Visual Arts > Material Culture: Pottery

Material Culture: Pottery Essay

Exclusively available on IvyPanda Available only on IvyPanda
Updated: Mar 12th, 2020


Historical museums have collected various materials that define the process of progression of a society. Historians have defined such materials as material culture. Although there are valid definitions of material cultures by various historical scholars, Brown defines it as a “study through artifacts of the beliefs- values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions- of a particular community of society at given time” (1).

The artifacts themselves are also described by the term material culture. In the context of the discussions of this paper, the later definition of material culture is adopted. Material culture, as a scholarly discipline of study, provides evidence of the development of human experience through the creation of physical objects. Such materials are created through a wide number of processes.

Different types of material cultures include jewelry, sculpture, pottery, and basketry among others (Mansfield 246). The paper argues that material culture is descriptive of the social relations of people accredited with the creation of a particular type of tangible material.

The argument implies that, by discussing the material culture of a given society, it also becomes possible to scrutinize the cultural composition coupled with various social attitudes of people who created the material artifacts. Consequently, by studying a myriad of physical objects created by a given group of people, their cultural functioning becomes also possible to unveil.

Although the paper appreciates that there are different materials cultures, which can be deployed to depict the development of societies, this paper focuses only on the pottery with a particular concern going to its origin and evolution without negating its role on people’s lives.

Origin of Pottery

Since time immemorial, pottery formed an essential part of the cultural histories of people. Rice supports this line of view by further asserting, “Pots, raw materials, and the tools of their manufacture contributed a rich imagery and metaphors for the ineffable experiences of humankind, including the biblical creations of humans from clay, birth, life, death, and sexual experience” (2).

A good example where pottery is associated with creation is the case of the South African cultural heritages in which people associate pots and other objects made form clay with vines coupled with birds while not negating the association of such objects with various cosmic struggles of the societies.

While these associations may be indicative of the rich history of pottery as a cultural artifact, little is accomplished in terms of helping to scientifically analyze the reasons and how various pottery objects were created first in the human race long journey of survival.

In this context, it is plausible to infer that a thorough analysis of the origin of pottery calls for more than simply correlating pottery artifacts to focus on explanations. Why then did pottery constitute one of the earliest material assemblages of people?

The chronology of how pottery came into being in Asia may perhaps provide a possible response to the question raised above. In this region, Kuzmin attributes the emergence of pottery to environmental changes (112). The author further informs that it is possible that the art of pot making emerged first in Asia.

For instance, it emerged in “South China (up to ~14,800 BP), the Japanese Islands (about 13,800-13,500 BP), and the Russian Far East (~13,300 BP)” (Kuzmin 114). Considering this assertion, it is evident that the relationship between the origin of pottery and climatic changes was not principally linear.

In the case of East Asia, the need for processing various fresh products including mollusks, fish, and even plant products may have given rise to pot making.

Kuzmin is inclined to this line of thought by further asserting, “an important feature is the quite non-uniform nature of the neolithization process in the eastern part of Asia where often, in 2 neighboring regions, pottery appeared at very different times: approximately 15,000-14,000 BP in south China and ~4000 BP in mainland Southeast Asia” (116).

Considering this argument, it is crucial to note that pottery as a material culture may have been attributed to some cultural shift force. This driving force differs from one society and region to another. However, Asia remains iconic in having recorded the first pottery development in the history of the human race.

Gravettian figurines are amongst the earliest ceramics. Some of the commonest known figurines include “those discovered at Dolní Věstonice in the modern-day Czech Republic” (Kainer 45). The figurines took the form of a woman without clothes dating between 29,000 to 25,000 BCE.

“The earliest pottery vessel dates back to 20,000 BP after being discovered in Xianrendong cave in Jiangxi, China” (Wu and Goldberg 1697). Pottery is speculated to have been deployed in cookware. Additionally, there are pottery ware that was discovered in China and other parts of the world, which many historians contend that they also make some of the earliest assorted objects made from clay.

They include vessels excavated “from the Yunchanyan Cave in the southern China, dated from 16,000 BCE and those found in the Amur River basin in the Russian far east, dated from 14, 000 BCE” (Wu and Goldberg 1698). In fact, by 2012, the earliest pottery work discovered in the entire world is the one discovered at Xianrendong Cave. It is believed to have been in existence for between 19,000 and 20,000 years.

There have been discoveries of pottery in both Japan and China dating 12,000 to 18,000 years counting from 2012. During the era of Tang, China became a renowned nation in the exportation of porcelain. However, Koreans were already conversant with the usage of porcelain even in the early 14th century. Indeed, they took the art of porcelain to Japan in the early 17th century (Kainer 45).

From this discussion, it is perhaps imperative to infer that many indications point at pottery to have originated from the Asian continent particularly in the nations of the Far East such as China, India, Korea, and Japan.

Upon considering the developments in pottery work in other regions all over the world, Barnett and Hoopes assert, “the secret of making such porcelain was brought in the Islamic world and later in Europe when examples were imported from the East” (19). This assertion evidences further the positions that the art of pottery may have predominantly originated from nations in the Far East before spreading to other nations across the globe.

In the light of the arguments raised above about the origin of the pottery making art, it is paramount to note that some regions in the world had their own distinct developments in the art. For instance, Sheumaker and Shirley note, “most evidence points to an independent development of pottery in the American culture, starting with the Archaic (3500-2000 BCE), and to their formative period (2000 BCE -200CE)” (36).

Nevertheless, such cultures hardly developed porcelain stonewares and or glazes in their historic era. This exclusive case is significant since not all objects developed by people through their cultural history can be classified as pottery even though they involve a process similar to that adopted in making pottery products. Pottery only involves those objects made from stoneware, earth ware, and or porcelain.

Evolution of Pottery

People’s levels of technologies in making various cultural artifacts keep on changing so that primitive approaches are replaced by more advanced and quicker approaches. For the case of pottery, immense changes in the manner in which people shape and process pottery objects have been recorded since the art was discovered.

In the early ages, people collected clay at riverbanks or even from other sources, spread it on a flat surface (typically a stone slab), and then pick inappropriate inclusions such as fragments of rocks. They would then ‘beat it’ using hands and tread it through their feet in the effort to make it consistent. With the consistent clay raw material, the shaping process would follow suit depending on their fancies.

To harden it and perhaps ensure that the article made from the clay was non-porous, the primitive approach involved firing the articles in open kilns. The overall repercussion of firing article this way was, “such pottery became buff, drab, brown, or red forming imperfect firing becomes smoked, grey, or black” (Metcalfe 49). Noting these challenges, people began looking for better ways of processing products made from clay.

One can trace the pre-historical process of making cultural artifacts and realize that, as time progressed, technical knowhow coupled with skill bases increased gradually and consistently in many nations across the globe. As these developments took place, the technical expertise for making earth ware products was not left behind.

In the words of Barnett and Hoopes, in the area of pottery making, “methods remain of the simplest form…until some original genius of the tribe finds that, by starting to build up his pot on the flattened side of a boulder, he can turn his support to bring every part in succession under his hand” (27).

This discovery culminated into the invention of the potter’s the wheel, a device that marked the beginning of mechanization of pottery making. Arguably, this innovation marked a period for the invention of new methods not only for processing clay but also for new methods for shaping it.

The process of evolution of the art of making pottery products has been characterized by various shaping process. Hand building was the most primitive way and perhaps the method used to shape some of the oldest pottery products recoded in the history of pottery making.

In its simplest form, hand building involves making coils or balls of clay and then stacking them together to form the desired shape. Slip is then used to fill in the spaces and the depressions formed by the coils or the body of the ball. The article can be decorated either before or even after firing has been done. As argued before, the invention of the potter’s the wheel made this process more rapid.

The main processes for making a pottery article using throwing approach (a process aided by the potter’s wheel) are centering, opening, flooring, pulling, and trimming. Similar to the primitive methodologies of shaping pottery articles, the process of throwing has its dominant challenges, which prompted people to invent new approaches to shaping articles.

Ashmore and Sharer support this argument by informing, “Considerable skills and experience are required to throw pots of an acceptable standard, and while the wares may have high artistic merits, the reproducibility of the method is poor” (11). This argument implies that the process is only appropriate for earth wares having radial or vertical lines of symmetry.

However, the technique is used even today since thrown clay articles can undergo further modifications such as an attachment of the handle, for instance, in the case of a clay cup. Such modifications mean that the attached parts would have weaker bonds since they are made differently through different processes in some cases.

For this purpose, injection molding evolved as an alternative method of shaping pottery products since irregularly shaped objects would be made in a single process and at the same time. Hence, challenges of weak bonding were offset. The use of alternative forming processes such as RAM pressing, pressure casting, slip casting, and deployment of the roller-head machine are all indicative of a rich history of the evolution of pottery making processes.

In the modern pottery making processes, there have been incredible developments in the methods of improving the quality and even the life of the pottery products. Some of these approaches were widely unknown in the early times. For instance, the earliest pottery products were not glazed. Essentially, glazing is the application of “a glassy coating on pottery, the primary purposes of which decoration and protection are based” (Metcalfe 48).

In fact, a tremendous evolution in pottery decoration processes and practice has been registered with time. While the earliest pottery was not decorated and, (if decorated, it was through an incision), modern decoration includes the coloring or formation of pottery with immense shape complexities for decorative purposes among many other techniques.

Firing has also tremendously improved so that it has become possible to prevent blackening of clay products upon firing as was the case while firing through open or pit kilns. This case has been partly made possible by developments of electric kilns and gas kilns among other firing techniques.

From the discussion of this section, it is clear that the art of pot making has evolved in almost every aspect. Deployment of machinery has completely altered the range and shape of products that can be made from clay.

This progress has resulted in the reduction in the processing time thus truncating into increased productivity. Nevertheless, some of the ancient approaches in the making of pottery items have been retained, for instance, the employment of strings in the cutting of clay during the shaping process.

Role of Pottery on People’s Lives

Any material culture is significant in the lives of people since it provides and makes new items and objects for use in the daily life of people available to help in easing certain tasks, which would otherwise be tedious. For instance, basketry material culture provided a means for making the carrying of loads easier.

Pottery as a material culture made it possible for people to make items such as cups, religious articles, bowls, and even pitchers in the earliest times. In the modern day, pottery is a central aspect of the society since many materials used in the construction industry such as roofing tiles, floor tiles, bathrooms, and toilet accessories among others are pottery-based. Some tourist souvenirs and wind chimes among others are also pottery-based.

Pottery is also a noble source of employment among many people. For instance, in America, the mid 19th century formed a major period for pottery experimentation. Many organizations adopted pottery-making processes such as slip molding to manufacture various pottery products that were meant for mass consumption.

Such large-scale manufacturing endeavors meant that people drawn from the societies neighboring the manufacturing organizations were hired to provide the much-needed labor.

This advantage resulted in a rapid economic endowment of people particularly by noting that, in the early 19th century, production processes were principally labor intensive. A good example of a large-scale manufacturing organization in the early 1800s was the commercial earth ware company established by Joseph Henderson and David Henderson in 1828 at New Jersey.

The company was later renamed in 1833 as the American pottery manufacturing company (Sheumaker and Shirley 81). Apart from employing a large number of people, the evolution of pottery material culture has led to the availing of a large number of materials for construction and interiors design. This accessibility makes living rooms more appealing to people.

From the above-raised arguments, it is evident that pottery is an integral facet shaping the developments of global societies since the Stone Age era. From cookery wares, water transportation containers, to ornamental items, world’s civilization has depended on potters coupled with their trade for collective progression. In this light, Kainer further posits, “without such pots; many civilizations would have found a challenging progression ahead of them” (49).

The argument means that material culture is an integral element of people without which life would be immensely difficult. Indeed, at societal face value, pottery is not only depictive of various functions it is meant to accomplish but also a “work of arts in its own right” (Rice 87). The developments of new styles of pottery works took place in response to various economic technical and or social requirements by the evolving societies.

Consequently, “pottery is closely integrated with developments of several different civilizations from the earliest times up to the present day” (Barnett and Hoopes 66). Various decorative forms adopted by different cultures in their pottery products explain the cultural heritages of such people.

Therefore, pottery is important in people’s lives since it is a symbol of the cultural history of different people coupled with serving the principal purposes of reflecting the significance and values attached to material culture by different societies across the globe.


Various cultural aspects can define the process of evolution of a society. Material culture is one of such aspects through which the studying of the technological characteristics of the methodologies and skill levels for the production of cultural materials has enabled historians to have a chronological account of the evolution of a society under study.

As highlighted in the paper, through the analysis of the historical accounts of pottery, most indications point at the likelihood that the art pottery may have originated from the Far East nations.

Irrespective of the lack of precision for the place where pottery making first originated, the paper maintained that the pottery material culture had undergone tremendous evolution processes with hand making being one of the most primitive ways of forming pottery wares. Formed pottery wares resulted in bettering people’s lives both socially and economically particularly with the onset of mass manufacturing of pottery wares.

Works Cited

Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000. Print.

Barnett, William, and John Hoopes. The Emergence of Pottery: Technology and Innovation in Ancient Society. New York, NY: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. Print.

Kainer, Simon. “The oldest pottery in the world.” Current World Archaeology 3.1(2003): 44–49. Print.

Kuzmin, Yu. “The origin of pottery in East Asia and its relationships to environmental changes in the late glacial.” UAiR 52.2(2010): 112-119. Print.

Mansfied, Rudi. “Introduction: matter unbound.” Journal of material culture 8.2(2003): 246-251. Print.

Metcalfe, Charles. “Ash Glaze Research.” Ceramic Review 202.17(2003): 48-50. Print.

Prown, David. “Mind in matter: an introduction to material culture theory and method.” Winterthur portfolio 17.1(1992): 1-19. Print.

Rice, Prudence. Pottery Analysis – A Sourcebook. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print.

Sheumaker, Helen, and Teresa Shirley. Material culture in America: understanding everyday life. New York, NY: Free Press, 2004. Print.

Wu, Zhang, and Cohen Goldberg. “Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China” Science 336.6089(2012): 1696–1700. Print.

This essay on Material Culture: Pottery was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
Removal Request
If you are the copyright owner of this paper and no longer wish to have your work published on IvyPanda.
Request the removal

Need a custom Essay sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

801 certified writers online

Cite This paper
Select a referencing style:


IvyPanda. (2020, March 12). Material Culture: Pottery. https://ivypanda.com/essays/material-culture-pottery/


IvyPanda. (2020, March 12). Material Culture: Pottery. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/material-culture-pottery/

Work Cited

"Material Culture: Pottery." IvyPanda, 12 Mar. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/material-culture-pottery/.

1. IvyPanda. "Material Culture: Pottery." March 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/material-culture-pottery/.


IvyPanda. "Material Culture: Pottery." March 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/material-culture-pottery/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Material Culture: Pottery." March 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/material-culture-pottery/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Material Culture: Pottery'. 12 March.

Powered by CiteTotal, free citation creator
More related papers