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    19. The First Potter

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    Chapter 20
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    Collective humanity owes a great debt of gratitude to the first potter.
    Before his days the art of boiling, though in one sense very simple and
    primitive indeed, was in another sense very complex, cumbersome, and
    lengthy. The unsophisticated savage, having duly speared and killed his
    antelope, proceeded to light a roaring fire, with flint or drill, by the
    side of some convenient lake or river in his tropical jungle. Then he
    dug a big hole in the soft mud close to the water's edge, and let the
    water (rather muddy) percolate into it, or sometimes even he plastered
    over its bottom with puddled clay. After that, he heated some smooth
    round stones red hot in the fire close by, and drawing them out gingerly
    between two pieces of stick, dropped them one by one, spluttering and
    fizzing, into his improvised basin or kettle. This, of course, made the
    water in the hole boil; and the unsophisticated savage thereupon thrust
    into it his joint of antelope, repeating the process over and over again
    until the sodden meat was completely seethed to taste on the outside. If
    one application was not sufficient, he gnawed off the cooked meat from
    the surface with his stout teeth, innocent as yet of the dentist's art,
    and plunged the underdone core back again, till it exactly suited his
    not over-delicate or dainty fancy.

    To be sure, the primitive savage, unversed as he was in pastes and
    glazes, in moulds and ornaments, did not pass his life entirely devoid
    of cups and platters. Coconut shell and calabash rind, horn of ox and
    skull of enemy, bamboo-joint and capacious rhomb-shell, all alike, no
    doubt, supplied him with congenial implements for drink or storage. Like
    Eve in the Miltonic Paradise, there lacked him not fit vessels pure;
    picking some luscious tropical fruit, the savoury pulp he chewed, and in
    the rind still as he thirsted scooped the brimming stream. This was
    satisfactory as far as it went, of course, but it was not pottery. He
    couldn't boil his joint for dinner in coco-nut or skull; he had to do it
    with stone pot-boilers, in a rude kettle of puddled clay.

    But at last one day, that inspired barbarian, the first potter, hit by
    accident upon his grand discovery. He had carried some water in a big
    calabash--the hard shell of a tropical fruit whose pulpy centre can be
    easily scooped out--and a happy thought suddenly struck him: why not put
    the calabash to boil upon the fire with a little clay smeared outside
    it? The savage is conservative, but he loves to save trouble. He tried
    the experiment, and it succeeded admirably. The water boiled, and the
    calabash was not burnt or broken. Our nameless philosopher took the
    primitive vessel off the fire with a forked branch and looked at it
    critically with the delighted eyes of a first inventor. A wonderful
    change had suddenly come over it. He had blundered accidentally upon the
    art of pottery. For what is this that has happened to the clay? It went
    in soft, brown, and muddy; it has come out hard, red, and stone-like.
    The first potter ruminated and wondered. He didn't fully realise, no
    doubt, what he had actually done; but he knew he had invented a means by
    which you could put a calabash upon a fire and keep it there without
    burning or bursting. That, after all, was at least something.

    All this, you say (which, in effect, is Dr. Tylor's view), is purely
    hypothetical. In one sense, yes; but not in another. We know that most
    savage races still use natural vessels, made of coco-nuts, gourds, or
    calabashes, for everyday purposes of carrying water; and we also know
    that all the simplest and earliest pottery is moulded on the shape of
    just such natural jars and bottles. The fact and the theory based on it
    are no novelties. Early in the sixteenth century, indeed, the Sieur
    Gonneville, skipper of Honfleur, sailing round the Cape of Good Hope,
    made his way right across the Southern Ocean to some vague point of
    South America where he found the people still just in the intermediate
    stage between the use of natural vessels and the invention of pottery.
    For these amiable savages (name and habitat unknown) had wooden pots
    'plastered with a kind of clay a good finger thick, which prevents the
    fire from burning them.' Here we catch industrial evolution in the very
    act, and the potter's art in its first infancy, fossilised and
    crystallised, as it were, in an embryo condition, and fixed for us
    immovably by the unprogressive conservatism of a savage tribe. It was
    this curious early observation of evolving keramic art that made
    Goguet--an anthropologist born out of due season--first hit upon that
    luminous theory of the origin of pottery now all but universally

    Plenty of evidence to the same effect is now forthcoming for the modern
    inquirer. Among the ancient monuments of the Mississippi valley, Squier
    and Davis found the kilns in which the primitive pottery had been baked;
    and among their relics were partially burnt pots retaining in part the
    rinds of the gourds or calabashes on which they had been actually
    modelled. Along the Gulf of Mexico gourds were also used to give shape
    to the pot; and all over the world, even to this day, the gourd form is
    a very common one for pottery of all sorts, thus pointing back, dimly
    and curiously, to the original mode in which fictile ware generally
    came to be invented. In Fiji and in many parts of Africa vessels
    modelled upon natural forms are still universal. Of course all such pots
    as these are purely hand-made; the invention of the potter's wheel, now
    so indissolubly associated in all our minds with the production of
    earthenware, belongs to an infinitely later and almost modern period.

    And that consideration naturally suggests the fundamental question, When
    did the first potter live? The world (as Sir Henry Taylor has oracularly
    told us) knows nothing of its greatest men; and the very name of the
    father of all potters has been utterly forgotten in the lapse of ages.
    Indeed, paradoxical as it may sound to say so, one may reasonably doubt
    whether there was ever actually any one single man on whom one could
    definitely lay one's finger, and say with confidence, Here we have the
    first potter. Pottery, no doubt, like most other things, grew by
    imperceptible degrees from wholly vague and rudimentary beginnings. Just
    as there were steam-engines before Watt, and locomotives before
    Stephenson, so there were pots before the first potter. Many men must
    have discovered separately, by half-unconscious trials, that a coat of
    mud rudely plastered over the bottom of a calabash prevented it from
    catching fire and spilling its contents; other men slowly learned to
    plaster the mud higher and ever higher up the sides; and yet others
    gradually introduced and patented new improvements for wholly encasing
    the entire cup in an inch thickness of carefully kneaded clay. Bit by
    bit the invention grew, like all great inventions, without any inventor.
    Thus the question of the date of the first potter practically resolves
    itself into the simpler question of the date of the earliest known

    Did palæolithic man, that antique naked crouching savage who hunted the
    mammoth, the reindeer, and the cave-bear among the frozen fields of
    interglacial Gaul and Britain--did palæolithic man himself, in his rude
    rock-shelters, possess a knowledge of the art of pottery? That is a
    question which has been much debated amongst archæologists, and which
    cannot even now be considered as finally settled before the tribunal of
    science. He must have drunk out of something or other, but whether he
    drank out of earthenware cups is still uncertain. It is pretty clear
    that the earliest drinking vessels used in Europe were neither bowls of
    earthenware nor shells of fruits, for the cold climate of interglacial
    times did not permit the growth in northern latitudes of such large
    natural vessels as gourds, calabashes, bamboos, or coco-nuts. In all
    probability the horns of the aurochs and the wild cattle, and the
    capacious skull of the fellow-man whose bones he had just picked at his
    ease for his cannibal supper, formed the aboriginal goblets and basins
    of the old black European savage. A curious verbal relic of the use of
    horns as drinking-cups survives indeed down to almost modern times in
    the Greek word _keramic_, still commonly applied to the art of pottery,
    and derived, of course, from _keras_, a horn; while as to skulls, not
    only were they frequently used as drinking-cups by our Scandinavian
    ancestors, but there still exists a very singular intermediate American
    vessel in which the clay has actually been moulded on a human skull as
    model, just as other vessels have been moulded on calabashes or other
    suitable vegetable shapes.

    Still, the balance of evidence certainly seems to show that a little
    very rude and almost shapeless hand-made pottery has really been
    discovered amongst the buried caves where palæolithic men made for ages
    their chief dwelling-places. Fragments of earthenware occurred in the
    Hohefels cave near Ulm, in company with the bones of reindeer,
    cave-bears, and mammoths, whose joints had doubtless been duly boiled,
    a hundred thousand years ago, by the intelligent producer of those
    identical sun-dried fleshpots; and M. Joly, of Toulouse, has in his
    possession portions of an irregularly circular, flat-bottomed vessel,
    from the cave of Nabrigas, on which the finger-marks of the hand that
    moulded the clay are still clearly distinguishable on the baked
    earthenware. That is the great merit of pottery, viewed as an historical
    document; it retains its shape and peculiarities unaltered through
    countless centuries, for the future edification of unborn antiquaries.
    _Litera scripta manet_, and so does baked pottery. The hand itself that
    formed that rude bowl has long since mouldered away, flesh and bone
    alike, into the soil around it; but the print of its fingers, indelibly
    fixed by fire into the hardened clay, remains for us still to tell the
    story of that early triumph of nascent keramics.

    The relics of palæolithic pottery are, however, so very fragmentary, and
    the circumstances under which they have been discovered so extremely
    doubtful, that many cautious and sceptical antiquarians will even now
    have nothing to say to the suspected impostors. Among the remains of the
    newer Stone Age, on the other hand, comparatively abundant keramic
    specimens have been unearthed, without doubt or cavil, from the long
    barrows--the burial-places of the early Mongoloid race, now represented
    by the Finns and Lapps, which occupied the whole of Western Europe
    before the advent of the Aryan vanguard. One of the best bits is a
    curious wide-mouthed, semi-globular bowl from Norton Bavant, in
    Wiltshire, whose singular shape suggests almost immediately the idea
    that it must at least have been based, if not actually modelled, upon a
    human skull. Its rim is rough and quite irregular, and there is no trace
    of ornamentation of any sort; a fact quite in accordance with all the
    other facts we know about the men of the newer Stone Age, who were far
    less artistic and æsthetic in every way than their ruder predecessors of
    the interglacial epoch.

    Ornamentation, when it does begin to appear, arises at first in a
    strictly practical and unintentional manner. Later examples elsewhere
    show us by analogy how it first came into existence. The Indians of the
    Ohio seem to have modelled their pottery in bags or nettings made of
    coarse thread or twisted bark. Those of the Mississippi moulded them in
    baskets of willow or splints. When the moist clay thus shaped and marked
    by the indentations of the mould was baked in the kiln, it of course
    retained the pretty dappling it received from the interlaced and woven
    thrums, which were burnt off in the process of firing. Thus a rude sort
    of natural diaper ornament was set up, to which the eye soon became
    accustomed, and which it learned to regard as necessary for beauty.
    Hence, wherever newer and more improved methods of modelling came into
    use, there would arise an instinctive tendency on the part of the early
    potter to imitate the familiar marking by artificial means. Dr. Klemm
    long ago pointed out that the oldest German fictile vases have an
    ornamentation in which plaiting is imitated by incised lines. 'What was
    no longer wanted as a necessity,' he says, 'was kept up as an ornament

    Another very simple form of ornamentation, reappearing everywhere all
    the world over on primitive bowls and vases, is the rope pattern, a line
    or string-course over the whole surface or near the mouth of the vessel.
    Many of the indented patterns on early British pottery have been
    produced, as Sir Daniel Wilson has pointed out, by the close impress of
    twisted cord on the wet clay. Sometimes these cords seem to have been
    originally left on the clay in the process of baking, and used as a
    mould; at other times they may have been employed afterwards as
    handles, as is still done in the case of some South African pots: and,
    when the rope handle wore off, the pattern made by its indentation on
    the plastic material before sun-baking would still remain as pure
    ornament. Probably the very common idea of string-course ornamentation
    just below the mouth or top of vases and bowls has its origin in this
    early and almost universal practice.

    When other conscious and intentional ornamentation began to supersede
    these rude natural and undesigned patterns, they were at first mere
    rough attempts on the part of the early potter to imitate, with the
    simple means at his disposal, the characteristic marks of the ropes or
    wickerwork by which the older vessels were necessarily surrounded. He
    had gradually learned, as Mr. Tylor well puts it, that clay alone or
    with some mixture of sand is capable of being used without any
    extraneous support for the manufacture of drinking and cooking vessels.
    He therefore began to model rudely thin globular bowls with his own
    hands, dispensing with the aid of thongs or basketwork. But he still
    naturally continued to imitate the original shapes--the gourd, the
    calabash, the plaited net, the round basket; and his eye required the
    familiar decoration which naturally resulted from the use of some one or
    other among these primitive methods. So he tried his hand at deliberate
    ornament in his own simple untutored fashion.

    It was quite literally his hand, indeed, that he tried at first; for the
    earliest decoration upon paleolithic pottery is made by pressing the
    fingers into the clay so as to produce a couple of deep parallel
    furrows, which is the sole attempt at ornament on M. Joly's Nabrigas
    specimen; while the urns and drinking-cups taken from our English long
    barrows are adorned with really pretty and effective patterns, produced
    by pressing the tip of the finger and the nail into the plastic
    material. It is wonderful what capital and varied results you can get
    with no more recondite graver than the human finger-nail, sometimes
    turned front downward, sometimes back downward, and sometimes used to
    egg up the moist clay into small jagged and relieved designs. Most of
    these patterns are more or less plaitlike in arrangement, evidently
    suggested to the mind of the potter by the primitive marks of the old
    basketwork. But, as time went on, the early artist learned to press into
    his service new implements, pieces of wood, bone scrapers, and the flint
    knife itself, with which he incised more regular patterns, straight or
    zigzag lines, rows of dots, squares and triangles, concentric circles,
    and even the mystic cross and swastika, the sacred symbols of yet unborn
    and undreamt-of religions. As yet, there was no direct imitation of
    plant or animal forms; once only, on a single specimen from a Swiss lake
    dwelling, are the stem and veins of a leaf dimly figured on the
    handiwork of the European prehistoric potter. Ornament in its pure form,
    as pattern merely, had begun to exist; imitative work as such was yet
    unknown, or almost unknown, to the eastern hemisphere.

    In America, it was quite otherwise. The forgotten people who built the
    mounds of Ohio and the great tumuli of the Mississippi valley decorated
    their pottery not only with animal figures, such as snakes, fish, frogs,
    and turtles, but also with human heads and faces, many of them evidently
    modelled from the life, and some of them quite unmistakably genuine
    portraits. On one such vase, found in Arkansas, and figured by the
    Marquis de Nadaillac in his excellent work on Prehistoric America, the
    ornamentation consists (in true Red Indian taste) of skeleton hands,
    interspersed with crossbones; and the delicacy and anatomical
    correctness of the detail inevitably suggest the idea that the unknown
    artist must have worked with the actual hand of his slaughtered enemy
    lying for a model on the table before him. Much of the early American
    pottery is also coloured as well as figured, and that with considerable
    real taste; the pigments were applied, however, after the baking, and so
    possess little stability or permanence of character. But pots and vases
    of these advanced styles have got so far ahead of the first potter that
    we have really little or no business with them in this paper.

    Prehistoric European pottery has never a spout, but it often indulges in
    some simple form of ear or handle. The very ancient British bowl from
    Bavant Long Barrow--produced by that old squat Finnlike race which
    preceded the 'Ancient Britons' of our old-fashioned school-books--has
    two ear-shaped handles projecting just below the rim, exactly as in the
    modern form of vessel known as a crock, and still familiarly used for
    household purposes. This long survival of a common domestic shape from
    the most remote prehistoric antiquity to our own time is very
    significant and very interesting. Many of the old British pots have also
    a hole or two holes pierced through them, near the top, evidently for
    the purpose of putting in a string or rope by way of a handle. With the
    round barrows, which belong to the Bronze Age, and contain the remains
    of a later and more civilised Celtic population, we get far more
    advanced forms of pottery. Burial here is preceded by cremation, and the
    ashes are enclosed in urns, many of which are very beautiful in form and
    exquisitely decorated. Cremation, as Professor Rolleston used feelingly
    to plead, is bad for the comparative anatomist and ethnographer, but it
    is passing well for the collector of pottery. Where burning exists as a
    common practice, there urns are frequent, and pottery an art in great
    request. Drinking-cups and perforated incense burners accompany the
    dead in the round barrows; but the use of the potter's wheel is still
    unknown, and all the urns and vases belonging to this age are still

    It is a curious reflection, however, that in spite of all the later
    improvements in the fictile art--in spite of wheels and moulds, pastes
    and glazes, stamps and pigments, and all the rest of it--the most
    primitive methods of the first potter are still in use in many
    countries, side by side with the most finished products of modern
    European skill and industry. I have in my own possession some West
    Indian calabashes, cut and decorated under my own eye by a Jamaican
    negro for his personal use, and bought from him by me for the smallest
    coin there current--calabashes carved round the edge through the rind
    with a rude string-course, exactly like the common rope pattern of
    prehistoric pottery. I have seen the same Jamaican negroes kneading
    their hand-made porous earthenware beside a tropical stream, moulding it
    on fruits or shaping it inside with a free sweep of the curved hand, and
    drying it for use in the hot sun, or baking it in a hastily-formed kiln
    of plastered mud into large coarse jars of prehistoric types, locally
    known by the quaint West African name of 'yabbas.' Many of these yabbas,
    if buried in the ground and exposed to damp and frost, till they almost
    lost the effects of the baking, would be quite indistinguishable, even
    by the skilled archæologist, from the actual handicraft of the
    palæolithic potter. The West Indian negroes brought these simple arts
    with them from their African home, where they have been handed down in
    unbroken continuity from the very earliest age of fictile industry. New
    and better methods have slowly grown up everywhere around them, but
    these simplest, earliest, and easiest plans have survived none the less
    for the most ordinary domestic uses, and will survive for ages yet, as
    long as there remain any out-of-the-way places, remote from the main
    streams of civilised commerce. Thus, while hundreds of thousands of
    years, in all probability, separate us now from the ancient days of the
    first potter, it is yet possible for us to see the first potter's own
    methods and principles exemplified under our very eyes by people who
    derive them in unbroken succession from the direct teaching of that
    long-forgotten prehistoric savage.
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