Civilizing Pottery

Pottery is impervious to decay, even when submerged in water or soil for thousands of years. That property is essential; without the invention of pottery, civilization and the modern world would not exist.

Amphora, Herakles, Apollo, Delphic tripod, Antokides painter

Ornamental amphora; Herakles and Apollo struggle over the Delphic tripod. Decoration by the Andokides painter.

Pottery is durable stuff. There are civilizations which we only know from their pottery. Everything else they left behind decomposed, and is lost to history. Even among civilizations about whom we know a fair amount, pottery decorations are often the best record we have of how a people lived, their art, their clothing, their hair, their furniture, their rituals, and even their legends. Pottery also preserves records of highly influential, but anonymous artists: we know nothing about the famous Andokides painter. But pottery is more than art and artifact. Without pottery, city and civilization would not exist.

Storing Food

At some point in prehistory, humans began living in fixed locations, which meant that they could feed themselves more by farming, and less by hunting-gathering. But that was only possible if they could feed themselves year-round. For farmers limited by a fixed growing season, that meant that some method of storing food was necessary. Storing food in the open, or in containers of leather, wood, or fabric, leaves it vulnerable to spoiling, insects, rodents, and others. More, each of those organic containers attracts its own pests. Stone is an occasional solution, but it is heavy, and very difficult to fashion into useful shapes and sizes.

In contrast, pottery is an inexpensive medium that is impervious to both microbes and pests, and so it allows not only for the storage of sufficient food, but food in excess. Food excess frees up members of the community for diversification and specialization of trades, leading to more productivity and efficiency.

Extending Food

But pottery does more than store food, it also extends the life of food. First, firing means that the interior of a clay bottle is sterile, almost the only sterile artifacts the ancients encountered. That aspect gives us the maxim about storing wine in new bottles, because old bottles carried microbes that would ruin wine. Beyond that, pottery vessels provide a more efficient way of cooking food over a fire, which not only extends the life of the food, but can even recover some spoiled foods: much rancid meat and decomposing vegetables can be rendered safe through cooking.

The ability to recover spoiled food had other effects that advanced civilization. Cooking spoiled meat preserves the nutrition, but it does nothing for the rancid flavor. To deal with that, spices and herbs came into great demand. (Because food spoils faster in balmy climates, to this day rich spices – particularly peppers – are more liberally used in the cuisine of warmer countries.) The demand for these flavorings made it profitable to comb the world for them. That culinary exploration eventually led to the European discovery of the Americas, Australia, Polynesia, and other places.

Shipping amphorae.

Shipping amphorae. The pointed bottoms allowed the containers to be set upright in the sand. In addition, because a narrow cylinder allowed for tighter packing, a flat bottom would have been insufficient to hold them vertical.

Trade & Currency

Pottery also became the foundation for much trade and commerce, as it allowed food to serve as a stable, storeable, portable, and uniform medium of exchange. Pots of wine, olive oil, or wheat were some of the earliest standardized units of commerce, particularly around the Near East and the Mediterranean. The standard clay shipping vessel had two handles to ease in carrying. Two handles meant it could be ‘carried on both sides’, giving us the Greek words, amphi (both) + phoreus (carry), or amphora. The amphora, in turn, became the basis for ancient currency: the value of a talent was the amount of precious metal equal to the weight of one fluid-filled amphora, about 25 to 35 kilograms, depending on the civilization. In ancient Greece, a silver talent paid for about 9 man-years of work, and so a man’s work was his talent. The amphora and talent as standardized units of trade led to yet more advances in commerce. A need arose for metal denominations smaller than the talent, and so some of the world’s first coins were minted in the area of Anatolia and Greece.

Bottled Light

Although the Greeks transported their olive oil in amphorae, within the home oil was kept in a smaller flask, a lekythos, from which we get the word ‘lecithin’. One version of the lekythos gave humanity ‘bottled light’: the oil lamp. Fire had been used by humans to extend the day’s activities for over a half-million years, and the campfire naturally led to the creation of torches and fireplaces. But the oil lamp generates a miniature fire, with a miniature illumination, which can support little more than handwork and mental activity. While the camp fire allows for the communal pageantry of dancing, singing, and story telling, the lamp can only provide light for only one or a few people, and encourages more intellectual activities such as talking, reading, writing, and reflecting. This is why it is appropriate that the oil lamp is the symbol of education. However, the wealthy man’s expensive, but iconic, ‘Ali Baba’ brass lamp misses the historical importance: it was the humble potter’s lamp that allowed the working classes to extend their intellectual activity, which accelerated human progress.

Pottery also provided civilization with greater consistency and predictability, as storage of food allowed the king and his subjects to survive drought, famine, and siege. For this reason, Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream would have been meaningless without pottery.


For that matter, without pottery there would have been no Pharaoh. The Latin word for excess is luxus. The Latin word for excess in abundance, however – or even excess in decadence – is the related word luxuria, ‘luxury’. Pottery allows for the storage of excess food that could be traded for the non-essential luxuries that identified Pharaoh, and all kings and nobles.

Producing all of that excess, fungible agriculture presented Egypt with additional problem. Every year, the Nile flooded Lower Egypt, and deposited rich silt for richer farming, and for the richest pharaohs. The annual floods, however, washed away most boundary markers, and so the Egyptians developed quick, efficient methods for determining each farmer’s boundaries, by ‘measuring the earth’, or geo-metry, as the Greeks called it.


The most efficient way to trade all of those excess ceramic vessels, of course, was by using yet larger vessels, i.e., ships. Navigation – from the Latin navis, ship – requires an understanding of astronomy and geometry, and eventually the production of maps, to find one’s way across a great aqueous, trackless wilderness.

Those larger sea-going vessels brought back more than merchandise, however. They also brought back exotic technology, and surprising ideas. There is much scholarly attention given as to why European culture came to dominate the world. Jared Diamond won a Pulitzer for his attempt to explain Western ascendancy with his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. It is a fascinating read, but a much simpler explanation was given by Fareed Zakaria: coastline. European coastlines are much more convoluted than those of the other continents. More coastline, more fishing; more fishing, more boats, more shipping, more international commerce, and more intercultural contact.

So shipping and trade means more ideas and more technological advances.

Writing & Mathematics

Excess production and extensive trade created a need to track inventories. That need produced written numbers, mathematics, verbal descriptions, and a professional caste of clerks/clerics to keep accurate records. Naturally, the earliest surviving records those clerics maintained were engraved in clay. Clay provides yet another unusual advantage here: temporary files were simply dried, but more permanent records were fired to an enduring hardness.

The importance of clerks in the ancient world is evidenced by the few records which remain of Persepolis, a city which Alexander razed in 330BCE. We have no record of the population of the city, but the Fortification Tablets – pottery records, of course – note that 1,348 people worked in the treasury alone.

Ballistics, Physics, Engineering

Stored food and wealth attracts pests and predators larger and more dangerous than rats: thieves, marauders, and armies constantly invade in pursuit of wealth. So as excesses accumulated, protection stronger than pottery was required. Farmers and merchants built stronger homes, then village collectives, and finally walled cities with a caste of professional soldiers. The words ‘citadel,’ ‘city,’ and ‘citizen’ are all related; in effect, a city wall is simply a much larger vessel which protects the smaller vessels within.

Attacking and defending cities became an arms race. Among the technologies imported to Europe was gunpowder, which created the need for more accurate aiming. More accurate aiming called on the clerical disciplines of mathematics, geometry, and celestial navigation. Those led to physics, and the first scientific discoveries of the Renaissance.

The concentrated humanity within the citadel created additional needs, for harbors, canals, roads, fresh water, and waste disposal. These problems, and the need for fortifications, requires engineers and architects (who were often the same thing).


Thousands of years after the invention of pottery, a substitute emerged: glass. Initially glass was an extravagant luxury – the stained glass windows of a Medieval cathedral could cost more than the stonework which supported them – but with time glass became an economical, mass-produced item. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Emperor needed a way to keep his troops supplied with food, and offered prizes for useful inventions. A French brewer, Nicolas Appert, found that meat, fruits and vegetables – which spoiled more quickly than grain, oil and wine – could be funneled into champagne bottles and heated to high temperature and pressure, and this prevented spoiling. To remove the contents, Napoléon’s soldiers took a sword to the neck of the bottle. This was the origin of modern canning, which further extended the shelf-life of food, and allowed for yet more economical and efficient sustenance for the masses.

Mass Production

Pottery also gave humanity the inspirations for mass production. Long before Adam Smith and Eli Whitney, potters were throwing vessels of uniform size, and molding and stamping out standardized ceramic products. These concepts would lay out the concepts for minting those early coins, and from there, to other types of mass production. Centuries before Johannes Gutenberg, the Chinese were making ceramic movable type; and long before either of those, there was the enigmatic Phaistos disc. The disc is a clay document printed with typed characters, which was made thousands of years before the movable type of Chinese and Gutenberg.  It is also possible that the type pieces for the Phaistos disc were fashioned from ceramics.

Mass productions was key for other critical inventions related to pottery. There are bricks for fireplaces, easier to work than stone, and which made warmth possible for more people in the winter months, and allowed civilization to penetrate the colder parts of the world. Those bricks also allowed for high-temperature furnaces to work metal, including precious metals, which was essential for minting early coins. Pottery also gave us our earliest sculptured art; tiles for floor and roofs; bricks for walls; inexpensive plates, cups, and serving bowls; small pieces of furniture; and even the small ‘counters’ for the early abacus and other accounting tools, which in turn became the playing pieces for the first board games.

Cutting Edge

Pottery is not done, and the contributions continue today. Some of the most exciting discoveries in materials science involve pottery variants. Research into hi-tech ceramics has produced superconductors, super-sharp knives, bio-implants, and other high-tech materials.

None of this would have happened with some humble clay pot, first fashioned by some clever ancestor in the earliest stirrings of civilization.

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Andokides amphora, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shipping amphorae courtesy of

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