The Beginnings of Pottery

Ceramics or Pottery?

Many confuse the term “ceramics” as relating solely to plaster, greenware or bisque.

However, “ceramics” is the umbrella term used for pieces produced from working with clay such as pottery.

What exactly is clay and where does it come from?

The earth provides this bountiful material and has continued to do so for centuries. Clay is formed when rocks containing feldspar are exposed to water. Depending on minerals that are in a body of clay, the colors can vary. For example: if a clay is red, it is because there is iron minerals present and if a clay is black, it is due to the presence of a mineral called manganese.

The First Works of Pottery

Mankind discovered clay around 24,000 B.C. It was thought that clay was found when digging. Man formed objects with the clay and put it in fire to harden it. This ingenuity led to the formation of vessels they made to hold water and store food. Clay bricks were also made which were used for building things.




When working with clay, maturity temperature, workability and color sets them apart from one another and defines what works best for a specific piece of pottery.


Maturity Temperature

  • Each type of clay matures at varying temperatures. Therefore it is fired to a particular temperature to reach the desired point of doneness.


  • A particular type of clay is chosen depending on its ease of forming without difficulty.


  • When making pottery, the type of clay may be chosen because of its color. When the clay has certain minerals (i.e., iron, manganese), it will have a distinct color.

Types of Clay


The type of clay is specifically chosen for a project because of its color and grain. There are three types of clay:



  • Color: Pure White
  • Grain: Fine
  • Uses: China Dishes, Figurines, Lab Equipment, Electrical Insulators


  • Color: Buff, Gray, Dark Brown
  • Grain: Coarse
  • Uses: Pots, dishes, sculptures, slab work


  • Color: Brown, Orange, Red
  • Grain: Fine
  • Uses: Flower Pots, Tiles, Sculptures


The Kiln


Once a piece of clay has been formed into the desired shape, it requires a drying method to become hard and sturdy. The formed clay is placed into a kiln to reach the desired hardness.


Primitive kilns date as far back as 10,000 years ago beginning with the pit kiln.


The pit kiln was a shallow hole dug in the ground where pottery was placed scattered in the pit, stacked, and fired. Once the pieces were cooled down, the ashes were cleaned off revealing a functional piece of pottery.

Types of Kilns Used Today


Throughout the ages, the kiln was perfected and modified to reach a desired effect on pottery pieces.


There are three types of kilns:



  • Most common type of kiln
  • Used for small loads


  • Runs on natural gas
  • Used for desired earthy coloring


  • Fueled by wood
  • Used for unique wood ash glazing


The Wheel


The pottery wheel or “potter’s lathe” is used for shaping the clay form with precision while using the hands, fingers or tools. By placing a lump of clay in the middle, the potter spins the wheel as they use their hands to smooth the clay as it turns.


Around 3,000 B.C., mankind began using a rough version of the wheel to perfect their form. Using a moveable platform to walk around, they manipulated and worked with their clay form.


Down through the centuries, the wheel was improved to meet the needs of the potter.

Today, most wheels are electric allowing the potter to control the speed; however, some prefer the rustic control of the wheel using their foot to spin the wheel.


Endless Beauty


Regardless of the period a piece of pottery came from, the organic and rawness are ever present in every piece.


Working with clay removes the potter’s thoughts from the clutter of life and places it on the simplicity of what earth has provided us to hold. The art of pottery not only produces beautiful and functional pieces, it provides a strong connection between the potter and the earth.

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