There are so many things that appeal to me about Ancient Ceramics. There is a certain rawness to the work that I’m drawn to every time I see a piece of work from early in Ceramic history. I am grateful for the opportunity during this semester to revisit some of what I spent time researching fresh out of college, 14 years ago. Since those memories have long since faded, I am glad to reorient, and have a chance to revisit what drew me to these early time periods. The first things are the relative roughness of construction, given the hand forming technology at the time, and the similarities between decorative techniques across the world over centuries.
The first piece in our assigned research that struck my fancy is this vessel from Nubia, Africa, from about 2000 BC.
Not only does this piece exhibit one of the forms I first encountered and loved, it is pit fired, which I worked with a fair bit after graduation. The voluptuous roundness and slight asymmetry of these forms has always been hugely appealing to me, both for the fullness and blessing that roundness seems to convey, but also as a release from my incessant desire for “perfection” and therefor permission to let go of precision symmetry. If these same pieces were perfectly symmetrical, it seems that some of their sense of life would fade. This was a huge lesson for me early in my ceramics career.
The decorative lines and dots are interestingly parallel to several motifs from Native American pottery traditions as well. Given the cultures these pots likely came from, I wonder if the symbolism is also related, as far as diagonal lines often connoting rain and clouds, hoping to bring blessings on crops and the land in general.
Another piece that caught my eye is this Gansu Bowl from China, even older, from about 3200 BC. These lines and shapes also echo Native American pottery, though that is much more recent history.
I keep coming back to the Native pottery angle because I teach a section on this in my beginning ceramics classes, which we just completed. It is the first place that I tie my students into history, and give them each a context to the techniques they are learning. I hope that does for them what these pieces do for me, in that I belong to something bigger than myself, and am currently part of something future generations may look back at and find place in.
Addendum: Upon further conversation, it is worth taking note that much of African pottery technique has remained the same through history, while Chinese ceramics quickly adopted the potter’s wheel and then mold-making for mass-production. This is particularly interesting as we move into Greek and Roman pottery, where the potter’s wheel became and integral part of their craft.