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.
Pottery is durable stuff. There are civilizations which we know about only from their pottery; everything else they left decomposed, and is lost to history. Even among civilizations about whom we know a fair amount, pottery decoration is 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 the work 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.
At some point in prehistory, humans began living in fixed locations, which meant that they could feed themselves by farming more, and by hunting-gathering less. 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 to survive the winter. Storing food in containers of leather, wood, or fabric leaves it vulnerable to insects, rodents, microbes, and others; and the containers attract yet other pests. Stone is an occasional solution, but it is heavy, and difficult to fashion into useful shapes.
In contrast, pottery is an inexpensive medium that is impervious to both microbes and pests, allowing for the storage of food in excess. That in turn advances civilization: a surplus frees members of the community to specialize and diversify in their trades, which leads to even more productivity and efficiency.
In this way, pottery provided civilization with greater consistency and predictability, as storage of food allowed the king and his subjects to survive drought, famine, and siege. Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream would have been meaningless without pottery.
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; until glass-blowing appeared, pottery was the only sterile artifact the ancients had. That aspect gives us the warning about storing wine in new bottles, because old bottles carry microbes that ruin wine.
Beyond that, pottery vessels provide an expensive way of cooking food over a fire, which not only extends the life of the food, but can even recover some spoiled foods: rancid meat and decaying vegetables can be rendered palatable through cooking.
The ability to recover spoiled food created other effects that advanced civilization. Cooking spoiled meat preserves the nutritive value and kills microbes, but it does little for the unpleasant flavor. To deal with that, strongly-flavored vegetables, herbs and spices came into great demand. (Because food spoils faster in balmy climates, to this day strong spices – particularly peppers – are more liberally used in the cuisines of warmer countries.) The demand for these flavorings made it highly profitable to search the world for them. That culinary exploration eventually led to the European discovery of the Americas, Australia, Polynesia, and others.
Trade & Currency
Pottery also became the foundation for much early trade and commerce, as it allowed food to serve as a stable, storable, 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 meaning it could be ‘carried on both sides’, which in Greek is amphi (both) + phoreus (carry), or amphora.
The amphora as a unit of currency paved the way for other ancient currency: a measure of copper, gold, or silver, equivalent to a fluid-filled amphora (about 25 to 35 kg) became a unit of currency. The metal was weighed against the amphora on a τάλαντο, talanton, or ‘talent’. In ancient Greece, one silver talent paid for about 9 man-years of work, and a man’s work was his talent.
Using the amphora and the talent as standardized units of trade led to other advances in commerce. A need arose for metal denominations smaller than a talent, and coins were invented; some of the first known coins were minted in the areas of Anatolia and Greece.
Although the Greeks transported their olive oil in amphorae, within the home oil was kept in a smaller flask, a lekythos (λήκυθος). A small version of the lekythos gave us ‘bottled light’, i.e., 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 handwork and mental activity into the darkness of night. While the camp fire allows for the communal pageantry of dancing, singing, and story telling, the lamp provides light for only one or a few people, which encouraged 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 rich man’s iconic, but expensive ‘Ali Baba’ brass lamp misses the historical importance: it was the humble potter’s lamp that allowed the working classes to extend their handiwork and intellectual activity, which accelerated human progress.
We mentioned Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream. Without pottery there would have been no Pharaoh. The Latin word for excess is luxus. The Latin word for excess in abundance – or even 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 as the Greeks called it, γεωμετρία, or ‘geo-metry’.
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 the great aqueous and trackless wildernesses of the world.
Those amphora in those large sea-going vessels allowed for the importation of more than merchandise, however. They also brought back exotic technologies 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 this 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. The coasts of Europe are much more convoluted than those of the other continents. More coastline, means more fishing; more fishing means more boats; more boats means more shipping; and more shipping means more international commerce and intellectual exchange.
An example of this intellectual exchange can be seen with the great Mediterranean navigators of Phoenicia. They needed standard rules and (again) standard measures, and so they gave us the foundations of admiralty law. They also disseminated the phonetic alphabet and writing, which was invented by their legendary forebear, Cadmus… although in reality, the Phoenicians almost certainly got these concepts from trading with the India… which again, shows the intellectual diffusion that accompanies trade.
Writing & Mathematics
We mentioned the problem of annually re-drawing the properties that fronted the Nile and how that created geometry, but excess production and extensive trade created other problems, particularly the need to track inventories. That need — whether starting in Phoenicia or India — produced written numbers and mathematics, as well as verbal descriptions and a professional caste of clerks/clerics to keep the records.
Fitting with our discussion, the earliest surviving records from those clerics were engraved in clay. Pottery provided yet another advantage: temporary files were simply dried, but permanent records were fired to enduring hardness.
The critical importance that clerks play in the development in civilization is reflected in the few records which remain of Persepolis, a city razed by Alexander in 330 BCE. Although we have no idea how many people lived in the city, and little record of their culture and their contributions, the Fortification Tablets – pottery records, of course – note that 1,348 people worked in the treasury alone. The city must have been massive.
Pottery also shows up in a rather bizarre and oblique way: I suspect it was critical to the success of early democracy, particularly in Athens.
Athens had a powerful tactic for dealing with people who became too powerful, and who began endangering democratic rule. Annually, citizens voted for anyone they wanted removed from the city. The voting for this removal was done on pottery sherds,1)‘Shards’ are glass, ‘sherds’ are pottery., or as the Greeks called them, ostraka (óστρακα; singular, óstrako). Each citizen would write the name of someone they wanted exiled, for any reason whatsoever.2)Aristides ‘the Just’ was one of the few known Athenians who was ostracized. On the day of the balloting, an illiterate man asked Aristides for help in writing on his sherd. Aristides asked him “Which name shall I write?” The man replied, “Aristides.” Taken aback, Aristides asked him why. The man replied, “I don’t even know the man! I’m just sick and tired of hearing everybody refer to him as ‘The Just.'” If anyone was named on too many ostraka, he was exiled.
That is to say, he was ostracized.
There is much research on the topic of ancient ostracism,3)The interested reader is directed to Sara Forsdyke’s Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece. 2005, Princeton University Press. but I wish to offer an additional insight, that ostracism may help to explain the genius of ancient Athens. If, as I argue, kings and other nobility suppress new ideas and progress, then when the powerful are restrained, genius spontaneously emerges. There are many historical examples that support this argument; Athens is one, but so is the innovation and progress inherent in modern democracies, particularly in the intellectual explosion following the defeat of several authoritarian traditions in WWII.
Given that insight, we can imagine some powerful ancient Athenian seeing his name starting to appear on too many ostraka. The wise politician or businesser would doubtless reconsider his activities, and back away from being too assertive in public life. Less interference, more freedom of thought and discourse, more and better new ideas.
So in addition to supporting the emergence of civilization, pottery may have played a key role in the emergence of the Western tradition, and the modern world as well.
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 economic vessels within.
Attacking and defending cities became an arms race. Among the technologies imported to Europe was gunpowder, which created the need for greater accuracy in lobbing missiles. Much of early physics involved calculating these trajectories. That problem then became a major insight years later: to explain orbital motion, Newton used the ever-lengthening trajectory of a cannonball.4)There is a mistaken idea that a projectile traces the course of a parabola. It traces a truncated ellipse, as the projectile is following a path of orbit around the center of the Earth; hence Newton’s explanation of orbits. And even before Newton, more accurate aiming called on the clerical disciplines of mathematics, geometry, and celestial navigation. All of this 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 pottery derivative and 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, corked, and heated to high temperature and pressure, and this process 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 extends the shelf-life of food, and allowed for yet more economical and efficient sustenance for the masses.
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.
This again, is true of writing and communication. Centuries before Johannes Gutenberg, the Chinese were making ceramic movable type, another pottery product; and long before either of those, there was the enigmatic Phaistos disc. The disc is a clay document printed with typed characters, which, if authentic, was made thousands of years before the movable type of either the Chinese or Gutenberg. It is also likely that the type pieces for the Phaistos disc were also fashioned from ceramics.
Mass production was key for other critical inventions related to pottery. Mass production of fired clay gave us cheap bricks for fireplaces, easier to work than stone, making warmth possible for more people in the winter months, and allowing civilization to expand into the colder parts of the world. Bricks also allowed for high-temperature furnaces for working metal, including precious metals, which were permitted the early coins.
Pottery also gave us some of our earliest sculptured art, as evidenced by the Venus of Willendorf. It also gave us 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.
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 advanced materials.
None of this would have happened with some humble clay pot, first fashioned by some clever ancestor, in the earliest stirrings of civilization.
Read more about how progress is created by middle class innovators, not powerful leaders.
Andokides amphora, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shipping amphorae courtesy of WikiMedia.org.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||‘Shards’ are glass, ‘sherds’ are pottery.|
|2.||↑||Aristides ‘the Just’ was one of the few known Athenians who was ostracized. On the day of the balloting, an illiterate man asked Aristides for help in writing on his sherd. Aristides asked him “Which name shall I write?” The man replied, “Aristides.” Taken aback, Aristides asked him why. The man replied, “I don’t even know the man! I’m just sick and tired of hearing everybody refer to him as ‘The Just.'”|
|3.||↑||The interested reader is directed to Sara Forsdyke’s Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece. 2005, Princeton University Press.|
|4.||↑||There is a mistaken idea that a projectile traces the course of a parabola. It traces a truncated ellipse, as the projectile is following a path of orbit around the center of the Earth; hence Newton’s explanation of orbits.|