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New Worlds: Dirt and Sand

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One of the best professors I ever had, Henry Glassie, gave a lecture at one point about his research among Bangladeshi potters. These were not fine art potters; the vessels they made were workhorse items, employed for all kinds of basic household uses, and the black patches randomly formed on their exterior were simply an artifact of the firing process.

Despite this, Henry said, the people who bought those pots had distinct aesthetic opinions about the location and size of the black patches, and would sort through an array of otherwise interchangeable pots to find one they liked.

Ceramics have been with us for a very long time — longer than agriculture, in fact, though pots didn’t come into broad use until shortly after we started farming. And basically since the beginning, this medium has had an artistic dimension as well as a practical one. I’m not talking about ceramic sculpture; that is certainly an art form, but we’ve talked about sculpture already, all the way back in Year []. We’ve also been decorating our practical items, our pots and our bowls, simply because we can and it makes them look nice.

One part of the aesthetic dimension is simply the materials used and how they’re treated. Different types of clay produce different results, as do shaping techniques — the invention of the potter’s wheel allowed for faster production and more regular forms — and firing temperatures. Earthenware, the most basic type, is fired at fairly low heat, while stoneware requires sustained higher temperatures, which partially or completely vitrify (glassify) the material, and porcelain I believe requires the use of clays like kaolin that will form a specific mineral during firing. Additives can also change the result, like bone ash creating the high strength of bone china, or the deliberately imperfect blending of different clays to produce the varigated appearance of agateware.

But for most practical purposes, you work with whatever clay is locally available. And to make it pretty, you find various ways to decorate it.

The simplest method is to somehow sculpt the exterior. The prehistoric Corded Ware culture is named for their pottery style, where they seem to have wrapped their pots in decorative patterns of twisted cord before firing; the cord burned off and left behind lines permanently impressed into the clay. Other cultures have hand-incised such lines or used stamps to mark the surface. It’s easier to manage geometry than complex rounded figures — for those, you’re better off modeling the surface upward with the addition of more clay.

Or take a different tack. You can burnish the surface of the clay to give it a more polished finish before firing, or you can cover part or all of it in a slip, a watered-down solution of clay that produces a different color or texture than the underlying material. You can also paint it with pigments; their appearance may change during firing, but that becomes part of the skill involved, knowing what your final result will look like when you place something into the kiln.

One of the most common alterations serves a practical purpose as well as a decorative one. Glazing a ceramic gives it a glassy coating which makes it impermeable to liquid and easier to clean. It can also add a color of its own (which again may change in the kiln) or serve as a transparent, protective layer over the slip or paint beneath. Several different types of traditional glaze exist, but I want to call out one that may raise eyebrows, which is lead glaze: if this is made properly, it’s fairly safe to use, as the lead becomes bound to the clay beneath and only very tiny quantities will leach into the food or drink. However, there might be narrative possibilities in a poorly fired lead-glazed item . . .

Having talked about glassy coatings and the vitrification of clay, it’s worth pivoting briefly to discuss glass itself. The process for this is very different from ceramics: you heat it first, then shape it, and I don’t recommend sticking your hands into a blob of molten glass! But in both cases you’re working with a mineral medium, you may use similar techniques to decorate it, and glass has been employed for many of the same purposes as ceramics.

An elite version thereof, though. Glassmaking is a more recent development — though still very old; we were working glass before we worked iron — and its fragility means that your expensive purchase might not last for very long. Making fine colors requires knowledge of specialized additives which might themselves be expensive, too. Glass also has an almost magical connotation, since its transparency is like very little else in the world apart from ice . . . and unlike ice, it doesn’t melt. (Not without a very hot furnace, at least.)

Ceramics and glass also share one more decorative purpose that I’m going to slide in here as long as we’re on the topic, which is the making of mosaics. Whether abstract or figurative, mosaics gain some of their beauty from the labor involved, placing hundreds or thousands or even millions of tiny tiles in precise locations to form a pointillistic image. Most commonly this was used for floors, because of the weight, but pietra dura is a similar art form sometimes employed in furniture, where colored stones are sawn into incredibly precise shapes and then jigsawed together to make what looks almost like a painted image. (You should look up examples; it can be jaw-droppingly impressive.)

And while you can theoretically use glass tiles in a floor — probably one that won’t see a ton of foot traffic, since you don’t want to break off shards — the more common “mosaic” use here is for windows. Stained glass is associated particularly with religious buildings (not only Christian ones but also Muslim), and for good reason; when the light comes streaming through, it is a glory to behold, and can absolutely elevate the spirit with wonder. Christian churches famously used pictorial windows to teach religion to illiterate parishioners, depicting saints and key scenes from the Bible. You can imagine doing the same with a mosaic floor, though that has the downside of being obscured by other people standing on it, and it won’t have the same “light from heaven” effect.

While glass is comparatively rare and often broken in the archaeological record, ceramics are so ubiquitous, and their decoration is so widespread, that we literally use them to define cultures and time periods in the past. The sudden advent of a new ceramic tradition can signal invasion by a different group of people or some comparably seismic shift in the history of a region, and before the advent of techniques like carbon dating that allow us to assign a specific age to a site, archaeologists organized prehistory into sequences of pottery styles. That’s how central the aesthetic aspect is of these otherwise functional objects.

Not bad for a bunch of dirt . . .

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5 thoughts on “New Worlds: Dirt and Sand”

  1. In pioneer settlements, especially with access to the sea, salt was used as a pottery glaze. Modern artistic potters have adopted it for different effects than standard glazes.

    Venetian glassmakers were literally kept in slavery on an island, heavily guarded and very limited access. Still a few of these valuable artisans escaped to take their near miraculous skills elsewhere. Also, to get a true ruby color for glass one must add gold to the molten glass.

    Roman pottery was mass produced and quite common. But Anglo Saxon pottery is rare. They used wood for plates and mugs and such.

    Thank you “Time Team” for wonderful historical information.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Pottery also doesn’t always survive! I worked on a site where, while I was there, they found their third piece of pottery . . . in twenty years of excavation. The soil was acidic enough that it dissolved basically everything (what we were digging was features, e.g. post-holes, ditches, defensive embankments, grave pits where you could tell there had been a body by the stain it left behind).

  2. Wall mosaics seem to have been fairly common too. Some churches had apse and ceiling mosaics, even. There might be some survivorship bias: a floor mosaic seems more likely to survive a couple millennia than a wall one.

  3. The fun part of dating by pottery is that you have to have the stratigraphy to date the pottery. I’ve read an archeologist assuring people who played with pottery shards as children that they didn’t do any harm; it was virtually certain they were not the first people to disturb them.

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