For us today it is completely natural to eat from plates and drink the morning coffee or tea from cups. On the windowsill the plants are placed in flower pots, in the living room the clay holiday souvenirs are collected and in the garden figures and vessels made of clay provide a decorative look.
In the bathroom there are tiles on the floor and walls, outside we see many house roofs covered with clay tiles. Children often get to know clay for the first time in kindergarten or in art lessons at school, some adults discover pottery as a hobby for themselves and even in old people’s homes and therapy facilities people like to work with the natural material.
But many people are not aware of the long history, the development and not least the work behind pottery as a craft. After all, most people only know clay as a ready-to-use material from a bag and the finished work is naturally fired in a modern kiln.
Pottery – where the clay comes from and how it is made
Clay is one of the most important raw materials in the production of ceramics. At the same time it is one of the oldest raw materials used by mankind. Finds of figures prove that clay was already used in the Stone Age. The oldest ceramic vessels in turn come from China and their age is estimated at around 20,000 years. The raw material for clay is weathered primary rock.
In the course of time, various weathered layers of rock, water, sand, organic remains and other deposits are used to create clay deposits. In the past, many potters set up their workshops near such clay deposits and dug out large chunks of clay themselves. However, some potters also mined clay in the mountains and then transported the excavated material to the villages by donkey.
However, the clay could not yet be processed in this way. Therefore the lumps of clay were put into bricked basins, covered with water and then had to be stirred to a muddy mass. In the past, this was done with the help of a steel rod, which donkeys moved by running in circles around the mixing pits.
Later, petrol engines took over the stirring work. In the next step, the stirred clay paste was sieved and transferred to drying vats. When the water had gradually run off, the clay was beaten to eliminate air bubbles. Only then could it be processed.
Pottery – an old craft, but today with modern technology
Not much has actually changed in the craft as such. Even today, beating the clay to remove air inclusions and make the clay supple is one of the first steps in pottery making.
In addition to techniques such as thumb pressure, beading or plate techniques, the clay is then often shaped on the turntable. This was also the case in the past. However, whereas today the potter’s wheels are usually electrically driven, potters used to move their wooden discs by means of foot pedals and driving wheels.
The kiln in which the finished pottery is fired also looks back on a long history. A traditional kiln, however, was a construction of bricks about one and a half metres high, round with a diameter of over one metre and open at the top.
At the bottom, the kiln had an opening on the side through which the clay pots were placed in the kiln. The earthenware was then covered with shards of old, broken earthenware vessels, which protected them from the mud that closed the kiln. What the kiln was fired with depended on what was available at the particular location. In Greece, for example, kilns were mainly fired with nutshells or with wood from olive trees, while in Germany lignite or local wood was used.
In the following twelve hours, wood had to be added again and again, and only then was the burning process completed. In the course of time, gas and electric kilns replaced the traditional stoves. The modern stoves made the work much easier, but they were also smaller.
Therefore, the pottery work had to be smaller as well or the number of pieces that could be fired at once had to be reduced. This led to an increase in the price of clay work. While today’s pottery workshops still mostly use electric kilns, the industry uses state-of-the-art, fully automatic kilns.
Pottery – manual work and industrial production
Traditional potters primarily made articles of daily use such as storage vessels, bowls, jugs, pots and oil lamps. Even in those days, carved patterns and various ornaments provided a decorative appearance, while glazes were hardly ever used.
A marking on the floor made it possible to trace the pottery from which the clay work originated. Today, handmade pottery is produced in pottery workshops and studios. This makes them not only small works of art, but real unique specimens.
These partly very elaborately and lovingly made clay objects have their price, but precisely because they are valuable individual pieces, they can distinguish themselves from the much cheaper goods from industrial mass production. In industry, ceramics are produced in large factory halls.
However, the work of the workers there has little to do with potters, even the contact with clay as a material is very limited. The workers are rather responsible for controlling and operating the machines. Hollow parts like vases, jugs or cups are poured into moulds and flat parts are pressed like plates. As a result, identical looking products can be produced in any number.
Pottery – the cup of justice and the piggy bank
In addition to objects of daily use, curious objects and gift articles were also pottered in the past. An example of this is the so-called cup of modesty. This cup is a drinking vessel that forces the user to drink sensibly.
If the user makes the cup too full, the entire contents will run out at the bottom. The idea for this cup is attributed to Pythagoras of Samos, who, according to legend, was concerned about the large consumption of wine by his workers during construction work on the water supply on Samos. Therefore the cup of justice is also known as the Pythagorean cup. Another example are the forerunners of our piggy banks of today.
In the past, small jugs were potted in this way, which were closed except for a small slit. Through the slit coins could be put into the jugs. Children received these jugs as gifts and had to break them in adulthood when they wanted to take out the money.