Origins of the Potter's Wheel
by Victor Bryant
Originally published on Victor Bryant's
Ceramicstudies.com. Used by permission. © Victor Bryant.
The Sumerian Culture - The First Urban Civilization
story probably begins in the Middle East around 4000 BC (6000 BP).
The village settlements were growing in size and prosperity. A new
phase in man's development was happening. In what is today southern
Iraq, or Ancient Mesopotamia, the first urban civilization was being
created; villages grew into towns and then towns into the great city
states: Ur, Uruk, Ubaid, Eridu, Lagesh etc. By 3000 BC. the people
of these cities, the Sumerians, had already established a
sophisticated trading commercial culture. This was the first town
and city based civilization on this planet. New crafts and
occupations evolved. More skills and tools were invented.
The Effects of Specialising
To a great extent all was triggered as a result of increased
division of labour and job specialisation within earlier small
communities. Of course some men still hunted and fished, but others
now planted crops and reared animals and, as they became more
experienced, farming methods improved, food production increased and
so did the population. Trade expanded over the whole region. More
pots were needed and various ways were tried to speed up all the
pottery techniques: making, decorating and firing.
Who did what - Men or Women?
Most of these changes affected the work and life style of the
men much more than their womenfolk. Most women were already almost
fully occupied and "specialising" in the vital task of bearing and
rearing children. Any other tasks done by the women must therefore
have been part-time and close to the home. Women almost certainly
developed the techniques of sewing, weaving and basket making in
most prehistoric communities. They were probably also the first real
potters - the makers of bowls, dishes, jugs etc. so it is not
surprising that in these early village societies building a basket
and coiling a pot had a lot in common.
The ancient technique of building a coiled pot involves squeezing,
squashing and smoothing the successive layers of coils into a thin
even wall which swells or tapers as it grows and encloses a shape.
To do this you need to turn the pot around slowly as you work.
Early potters soon learned to make the task of periodically
turning the pot much easier and more efficient by beginning their
coiling on a dish or bowl, or even a flat plate or smooth platter
they could twist round as they worked.
early coiled pots are round bottomed. They were probably started in
a bowl which could be easily turned or rolled around whilst adding
and smoothing the clay coils.
coiled pots taper downwards to a small base. This would make the
pots easier to turn whilst coiling.
The base was probably started by pressing a lump of soft clay or
a spiral of coils into a shallow round bottomed bowl and smoothing
it out with the fingers or a piece of wood or a bone rib. Coils were
then added progressively. The shallow bowl gave support to the soft
clay as first coils were added. The rounded bottom made it easy to
pull the pot around bit by bit. As the base and lower coils
gradually dried and hardened progressively they gave firmer support
to the soft coils being added above.
In more remote regions of the world women are probably still
coiling pots in this way. These illustrations show these methods
still being used within the last century in some African villages.
down with the bowl between the legs. It is easy to turn such a bowl
as each coil is added and squeezed and smoothed into the wall.
a round base. A pancake of clay about to be pressed into a fired
clay bowl. Sausage-like coils in the foreground.
and squeezing a coil as the wall is built.
small coils at the neck of the pot. Ready to build out the rim.
and opening to make a rim.
Finished pots have been allowed to dry completely in the sun,
piled up in a heap on brushwood and bundles of dried grass.
open bonfire of the finished pots.
More brushwood piled around the dried pile of pots, the bonfire
lighted and then fed with more bundles of dry grass.
Platters and bowls for faster coiling.
Innumerable ways developed of using a platter or bowl to speed up
coiling. Here is an example found in the Indian subcontinent.
However, soon after 4000 BC. in Mesopotamia a new
discovery/invention was being exploited...
The Arrival of the Wheel
The principle of the Wheel was discovered earliest in southern
By discovering the principle of the wheel, the Sumerians were
able to give up pulling provisions or people along on sledges or
dragging heavy objects over a series of logs. They devised how to
construct the first carts and chariots.
strange wedge shaped object c. 3000 BC. was found in an ancient
Sumerian royal grave at Ur in Iraq. (It may have been a sounding box
for a harp). It includes perhaps the earliest drawings of wheeled
carts or chariots. The whole surface is covered with a decoration
made up of tiny carved pieces of lapis, ivory and limestone stuck
together on the wooden box with bitumen; a sort of mosaic with
engraved drawing. There are two main rectangular panels illustrating
a great battle and then the plunder and celebration.
is a detail from the Battle scene: Warriors in a horse drawn cart or
chariot. This new weapon of war has four wooden wheels made out of
two semicircular pieces bolted together. It must have been a deadly
weapon at the time. Soon potters and other craftsmen found more
peaceful uses for the wheel...
Faster Coiling on a Turntable...
Eventually a small turntable or "tournette" was developed. With
this a pot could be turned around much more easily and quickly. The
pot making technique in Mesopotamia now gradually gradually changed
during the third millennium BC as the more potters adopted the
turntable for making and decorating. However, it took a long time
for free running steady turntables to be developed, therefore
"throwing", as we understand the technique today, did not develop
for a long time to come. It would be more accurate to describe this
turntable making process as "fast coiling".
And Men Became The Potters...
Until the arrival of the wheel, the women usually made the pots
- by coiling. With so many other responsibilities they could only be
part-time potters. With the invention of the wheel, men appear to
take over from their womenfolk the task of making pottery in most
ancient cultures. The villages of the Near East were now growing
into towns. More pottery was needed. Probably this need for
increased pottery production proved impossible for the women to do
with their considerable commitments to child rearing and food
preparation. Although one person can make pots more quickly with a
wheel, still more full-time labour is needed to decorate, finish and
fire this increasing amount of pottery. Clearly, in all communities
many people now became full-time potters from the third millennium
It appears that predominantly Matriarchal village societies
gradually became dominantly Patriarchal as bigger urban communities
became more organised and complex. (These important social changes
could be studied elsewhere in more detail.)
The Egyptian Potter