Ceramics is an extremely broad concept. Some people associate it with porcelain, others with raw vessels, and ceramic beads come to mind first. In the traditional meaning of ceramics, we call products made by firing clay. The name ceramics comes from Greek, where keramos means earth, or clay. In this post you will learn the history of ceramics, as well as the ways of its processing.
CERAMICS IN THE PAGES OF HISTORY
Ceramics is the first functional art to appear in the Palaeolith after painting bodies. Like cave painting and other prehistoric art, the use of ceramics was a reflection of socioeconomic conditions. Interestingly, although we can make guesses, we have no idea how the original pots were used. They gave a new opportunity to collect, cook, store and consume food. However, there is no hard evidence of concrete use.
CHINA’S ORIGINS IN CERAMICS
According to archaeological evidence, ceramics first appeared in East Asia, from where it spread to the Middle East and the Mediterranean after a thousand years. It is most likely that the Chinese origins of ceramics were due to the climatic conditions prevailing there, at a time when it was exceptionally cold. Cooking food was essential in harsh climates, hence the invention of cookware for heat treatment.
What is more, in China it is quite easy to obtain the raw materials necessary for ceramics such as clay, kaolin, feldspar and quartz. A large population of china is an additional factor in the invention of ceramics. However, it remains a mystery why Chinese ceramic art is so far ahead of its European counterparts.
CERAMICS ARE SPREADING BEYOND CHINA
Between 18 000 and 12 000 BC, pottery spread to mainland East Asia. It then spread to Japan, Persia, Africa, the Middle East, until it finally reached North and South America in 5500 BC. Unfortunately, to this day we are not sure whether this art has been independently discovered in many places or whether it was moved from China.
IOMON – PREHISTORIC JAPANESE CERAMICS
Jomon means “patterned rope” in Japanese, the name of the oldest ceramics, right after Chinese. The name of this pottery is derived from the way the dishes are decorated. The pottery circle was unknown to the Japanese – they made their dishes by hand. Interestingly, they combined clay with materials such as mica, lead, fibres and crushed shells. Then the vessel was formed with simple tools to finally burn it in a fire.
The main function of Jomon’s ceramics was to store food. However, scientists discovered that these vessels were sometimes used to store the corpses of infants and young children. Some of the artwork was focused on creating ritualistic vessels as well as figurines resembling people.
MIDDLE EASTERN CERAMICS
The Middle East was the last stop before Europe. Around 6000 BC, the first pottery stoves were built there, initially fired with wood and later lined with stone. This innovation allowed for a much higher firing temperature, making the dishes more durable and reliable. They also started to produce floor tiles, roof tiles, as well as terracotta sculptures. The demand for these products has increased significantly since the invention of the pottery wheel, which made it possible to create ceramics faster.
Middle Eastern projects were decorated from the beginning. First, they were painted with reddish dyes, usually in line. Later, more colour, geometric and animal motifs were introduced in Syria. Later, Mesopotamian art became highly polished, monochromatic and scarcely decorated.
CERAMICS IN EUROPE
Ceramics came to Europe from the Middle East, in the 7th millennium BC. Syria and Iraq are places from where ceramics techniques came to Greece. From Greece it spread throughout the Mediterranean, and from there to the Balkans and the rest of Europe. This took place between 6000 and 4500 BC.
Prehistoric and ancient Greeks achieved absolute mastery in the production and decoration of vases, amphorae and other objects. Geometric patterns and marine decorations reigned in the beginning. However, as pottery developed, black and red figures appeared, with which we now associate ancient clay vessels.
Probably the most famous African ceramics is Egyptian faience. It was created by crushing quartz or sand crystals with limestone, magnesium, potassium, sodium and copper oxide. A paste was formed in this way, which was then formed into shapes and fired. During heating, the faience hardened and developed bright, vivid colours with a vitreous sheen. The Egyptian word faience means shine, and faience ceramics were considered to reflect the light of immortality.
Porcelain is also a Chinese invention. Chinese masters worked out the methods of high-temperature processing of ceramics, until they finally created real porcelain. Progress has also been made in the production of high-performance glaze. At the beginning of the second century AD, enamel production began. They started using various pigments, experimenting with the form of ceramics. This was particularly the case in the creation of ceremonial and funeral dishes.
WHAT KIND OF CERAMICS
There are three types of materials produced from clay, namely ceramics, stoneware, and porcelain. They are classified according to the clay used and the firing temperature.
It is the oldest and easiest type, although it sounds like butter butter. It is the softest, heated at the lowest temperature (1000-1200 ℃). It includes prehistoric dishes, ancient faience and modern materials. Traditional ceramics usually come in earthy brown and red colors.
Stoneware is a denser type of ceramics, which is fired between 1100 and 1300 ℃. Moreover, vitrified clay is usually coated with powdered glass glaze and then fired again at a higher temperature. This process causes the glaze to melt with the clay skeleton, creating an impermeable surface. The colours of the stoneware range from grey to seledite.
Chinese porcelain is its most valuable and highest quality option. It is made from a mixture of kaolin clay with feldspar and quartz at 920-980℃ if these products are unglazed. Glazed porcelain is fired at 1280-1460℃! It is softer than stoneware and is typically translucent when held against light. Glazed porcelain is often white with color contrasting colors. The most classic combination was created in China and it is white porcelain with blue decorations.
A macabre variety of porcelain is the so-called bone china. It was made from incinerated cattle bones mixed with kaolin and feldspar. It was made in the first half of the 18th century, but was not commercially successful then. It was not until several decades later that the production was financially successful. Bone china is distinguished by its high level of white and transparency. It is also characterized by high mechanical strength. To my surprise, it is still being produced today.