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Pottery and its Role in the Lives of People Research Paper


Culture is regarded as the complex system of meaning and behavior that defines the way of life for a given group or society. Among others, culture encompasses beliefs, customs, and ways of life (Andersen & Taylor, 2010).

Culture includes ways of thinking as well as patterns of behavior. Observing culture involves studying what people think, how they interact, and the objects they use. In any society, culture defines what is perceived as beautiful and ugly, right and wrong, or good and bad. Culture helps to hold society together, giving people a sense of belonging, instructing them on how to behave, and telling them what to think in particular situations.

Culture is both material and non material. Material culture consists of the objects created in a given society such as its buildings, art, tools, print, broadcast media, and other tangible objects.

In the popular mind, material artifacts constitute culture because they can be collected in museums or archives and analyzed for what they represent. These objects are significant because of the meaning they are given. A temple for example, is not merely a building, nor is it only a place of worship. Its form and presentation signify the religious meaning system of the faithful.

History of Pottery and its Role in People’s Lives

Ordinarily, pottery is a considered to be an occupation that has no limits (Hopper, 2000). The beauty about pots is that their quality surpasses age and cultural borders. Although it has elements of both, pottery is neither painting nor sculpture. In general, pottery has concerns that are quite different from most other forms of expression.

First, it is the process of transforming from flexible mad to hard ceramic. Second, it has associations with the rigors of daily life and the rituals of religious life. Third, it has multiple uses. Fourth is the finite variety of form that may be created.

Fifth is its range of technical variation, giving a possibility of expression that is at least equal to all the variants of paintings and graphics, from water color to oils, and from etching to photo-lithography. Lastly is the degree of skill that is needed to bring all these concerns to the focal point of a finely made piece of work.

History of Pottery

As argued by Hopper (2000), the history of pottery goes back at least 8,000 years, to the Neolithic times, when the nomadic hunter settled to the life of crop farming and animal husbandry. Nobody is exactly sure where and when pottery making first developed. What is most likely is that it developed spontaneously in different places during roughly the same period of time.

Ceramic history could be much older than what is currently accepted. Recent findings in Australia claim archeological remains containing rudimentary ceramics dating back 30,000 years. The area usually credited with being the cradle of civilization, that of the Mesopotamian basin in the Middle East is also credited with having the first pottery making cultures. Japan possibly has a ceramic history at least as long as any in the Middle East.

One recurring fact is that, in what are often labeled as primitive cultures, the quality of clay work and its decoration had become exceptionally well made and sophisticated at such an early period in man’s cultural history. Regardless of where the actual first developments took place, the rudimentary forms from early pottery making cultures also have an astonishing similarity.

Archeologists generally agree that, like most of mankind’s major discoveries, the earliest pottery probably developed by accident. There are two basic theories of development. It may have come from observations of the way the earth became baked around fire pits, with the subsequent experimentation of making and firing pinched clay pots.

On the other hand, it may have come from the accidental burning of clay lined baskets. Baskets were the original storage containers. They were made from grasses, reeds, roots, or soft malleable tree branches, primarily for carrying and storing grains and seeds, the major elements of the diet at that time.

Baskets are anything but impervious to the loss of small seeds, which easily find their way through the basket weave. After a while, inner coatings of clay were probably smeared into the baskets to prevent loss. Some of these mud lined baskets were probably accidentally burnt, leaving a fired clay lining.

Pottery could have even developed from the process of wrapping foods in a skin of clay and placing them in the embers of a fire or on heated rocks to cook. This method was common among the Indians of North America, and may also have been the precursor of the common cooking pot.

From these simple beginnings, has developed an art form that has served mankind for thousands of years, for his daily needs from birth to the grave, and beyond. Throughout man’s pottery making history, he has developed a huge repertoire of shapes and surfaces to fill his many needs.

Looking at pottery in museums or as illustrations in books, one can not help but be amazed by the huge and subtle diversity of forms that man has molded clay into, for a wide variety of uses. Beyond the natural instincts of enjoying the purely manipulative quality of the material, and the function which is required of the formed objects, ceramic form has been influenced and altered by many factors and forces. Pottery developed as a response to the needs of mankind.

They became containers and dispensers. The forms they took developed for a number of reasons including the use required, religious associations, as a substitute emulating other more precious materials, geographical and climatic considerations, and the many variations in cultural customs. Once the basic needs became evident, forms were developed and made to serve them. Today, the variety of ceramic vessel forms that have been created is almost infinite.

Pottery and Religious Associations

Religious associations also had a profound effect on form development. Pots were made for fertility rites, deflowering of young girls, ritual libation vessels for the pouring of wines or oils, usually over sanctified ground, through to flower vases for temples and shrines of many oriental countries.

They also include pots made for funeral rites and ceremonies dating far back into the earliest of cultures. In ancient Egypt, rulers and other people of power were embalmed and mummified after death. Their internal organs were removed during the embalming process and were later interred with the mummy.

Clay form has been greatly influenced by objects made from materials other than clay. Objects in use by different strata of any society might simultaneously have included objects made in gold, silver, bronze, copper, stone, glass, wood, bone, leather, roots, reeds and grasses, or clay.

Not all these material were used by all cultures, but in each culture there was a hierarchy of materials that were used, mainly as a symbol of status. Clay was usually at the lower end of the status scale and often used to simulate objects made in a material of a higher value.

Chinese porcelain was perhaps the lonely early ceramic development which was afforded the recognition of being a material of substantial value. In some cultures, notably India, pottery was the disposable material, like today’s paper. In some parts of India, everyday pottery was thrown away after use, either as a measure of hygiene, or by religious doctrine, or both.

In many cultures, simple pottery forms were often endowed with spiritual or symbolic significance which has become lost with the passing of time. Vessels generally are the universal feminine symbol, the womb of the Great Mother, shelter, protection, nourishment, and fertility.

Lidded forms, covered jars, boxes, urns, or bottles represent the feminine principle of containing, enclosure, or the womb. The chalice, cup, or goblet represents the source of inexhaustible sustenance or abundance, the heart and salvation, plenty, immortality, and receptivity. The ewer is a symbol of purity, and of washing the hands in innocence. Gourd shaped vessels represent mystery and longevity.

Pottery in Regard to Geographic and Climatic Considerations

Geographic and climatic considerations are responsible for many form variations. First, the availability of clay and the types of available clay determine to some extent the objects that can be made in any given area. For instance, there may be only muddy clay or buff clay with a large amount of sand in it, as one finds in the Middle East and Africa (Coakes, 1998).

The pottery there is of a very direct nature, with little opportunity for excessive manipulation. In other areas, where there may be an abundance of highly plastic clay, pots of a much more fluid nature may develop. Plastic clays will usually tolerate a great deal more manipulation, and therefore more complex forms are likely to emerge. Different pots are made at high altitudes than those made at sea level, not only because of the clay content but also because of the firing variations at higher altitudes.

Climatic conditions have also played an important role. In hot countries, water is a precious commodity. Pots made for storing water are usually shaped to conserve water from excessive evaporation and are therefore usually made with comparatively narrow necks. Water is either tipped out or lifted out with a small ladle or dipping pot attached to a string. A vessel may even be a totally enclosed form with just a minute spout and small filling hole.

The forms themselves may be quite extended and swollen to expose a maximum of its surface to condensation on the outside of the pot, in order to keep the water cool inside.

There are usually a considerable number of insects in hot countries which are kept out of the containers by various cunning devices such as enclosed forms, objects that fill from the base, strainers, and many anti insect lid and spout variations. In cold or temperate climates, forms of cups and bowls are often more closed than open so that hot foods don’t cool too quickly, and the pots can also be a source of heating for the hands. Other climates will undoubtedly have their special effects.

Pottery and Mankind’s Cultural Customs

Mankind’s varied cultural customs and living habits have yet other influences on the development of form in pottery (Collins, 2005). For example, the way that potter is used, and in what sort of environment, has a very strong effect on the way that the bases of ceramic objects are made. In cultures that use tables, the base of the object needs to be flat or nearly flat.

In other cultures that may have little use for tables, pots may be hanged from branches, walls, hooks, or ceiling supports. Pots used in this way often have pointed bases. In yet other cultures, the objects may be placed directly on earth or sand floors. In this case, we often find pots with rounded bases that can be made to tip or roll easily when in use.

These forms would often be set on a braided fiber ring or even a ceramic ring, to facilitate tipping. In a further development of form, pointed or round-based pots were half buried for the storage of liquid that needed to be kept cool. It is much easier to bury or half bury a pot with a rounded base than one with a flat base. In some places where the contour of the ground was uneven, tripod or multiple feet were developed to keep the piece stable.

Pottery and Carrying

Carrying methods also have a strong bearing on form. In many cultures, particularly in Africa, objects are made with round bases to fit onto the head, separated and kept secure by a ring of fibrous material (Orton et al., 1993).

In others, particularly in the mountainous parts of South America, the pots were carried on the upper part of the back, or slung behind the neck by a rope or cloth sling placed through the pots low level handles and around the person’s fore head. The handles that were the support loops for the slings were carefully contoured so that they had no sharp edges that might cut the fabric. Their placement was critical to good support and mobility.

Pottery in Food Preparation and Serving

The ways and means of preparing and serving food and drink have also had their effect on form development of pots (Rhodes, 2004). In early primitive societies, food was mostly consumed in its raw or uncooked state. The diet of early civilizations consisted of little more than various forms of grain with the occasional portion of meat or fish, and beer made from fermented grain to wash the food down and aid digestion.

The earliest forms of food preparation were either by direct cooking of meat or fish by piercing bits of flesh on sticks and holding them in front of a fire, or by steaming.

This was done by heating rocks in a depression in the ground, or by placing hot rocks in a basket. In both cases, the rocks were covered with a thin layer of damp leaves or seaweed and the food placed on top. This was then covered with further layers of leaves, and sometimes earth or sand to contain the heat and steam. Both of these simple methods of cooking were and are still common in many areas.

Other timeless methods are cooking on top of embers, as well as on both charcoal and peat. As cooked foods became more widespread, different ways of cooking also developed. Pottery was developed to serve these needs, although in some cultures, notably India and Islam, iron, copper, and brass cooking pots were preferred.

Of all the pottery that we can see in the museums of the world, cooking pots are perhaps the least in evidence, most likely because of their fragility from continual use, but also because they may not have been held in high enough esteem to be placed in tombs to accompany the deceased in their after life.

Most of the pots that one finds in museums were made to be used rather than just to be looked at. Often, they had a special significance and were mainly used for less damaging actions of daily life. With a gradually changing role from utility to contemplation at certain periods of history, the pots of some cultures attained a glorified role and were made expressly to be looked at.

This happened particularly in England, Europe, and Czarist Russia from the mid eighteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries, where a large volume of interior ceramic accessories had little or no function other than a decorative one. Among these, one would find mantelpiece garniture sets, obelisks, and centerpieces, often based on structures and forms from the classical world of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Pottery and Gaming

According to Skibo (1992), even games have had their effect on shaping some pottery forms. In classical Greece, a game called Kottabos was played using wine cup or kylix. The kylix is a stemmed up cup with elegant handles. In the game, a finger was crooked through the handle and then, with a flick of the wrist, the dregs of remaining wine were flipped at a target across the room.

If the aim was accurate, the thrower dislodged a flat metal disc from the top of a metal stand, which then fell to the floor with a resounding crash. Both the shape of the cup and the handle had some effect on the efficiency of the game, and the resultant kylix form was one of great elegance. Variations on the kylix form have been abundant since the neoclassic period of the nineteenth century.


From the discussion presented in this paper is it clear that pottery is an amalgam of many things. In the late twentieth century, we may not be aware of many of the attributes, considerations, and hidden meanings that are built into pots of old, or of their importance to the cultures that made them. More often than not, we are only aware of the form or surface itself, and of one culture’s forms in relation to those of another.

Looking at the application of pottery in the areas of eating, drinking, storage, carrying, cooking and food preparation, serving, lighting, washing and perfuming, funeral, planting, as well as decoration and contemplation, it is obvious that pottery has played a big role in revolutionizing mankind’s way of life. The items we see and use today owe their origins to earlier practices of pottery. The present collection of items in house hold and elsewhere are certainly a result of the olden art of pottery.


Andersen, M. L. & Taylor, H. F. (2010). Sociology: The Essentials, Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Coakes, M. (1998). Creative Pottery: A Step-By-Step Guide and Showcase. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers.

Collins, N. P. (2005). Alamo Pottery: The Complete Collector’s Guide: The History of Alamo Pottery and Its Offspring, Gilmer Pottery. AuthorHouse: Bloomington, Indiana.

Hopper, R. (2000). Functional Pottery: Form and Aesthetic in Pots of Purpose. Iola, Wisconsin Krause Publications Craft.

Orton, C., Tyers, P. & Vince, A. (1993). Pottery in Archaeology. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Rhodes, D. (2004). Pottery Form. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications.

Skibo, J. M. (1992). Pottery Function: A Use-Alteration Perspective. New York, NY: Springer.

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