The First Potter by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

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 accepted.

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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 pottery.

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Did palaeolithic 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 palaeolithic 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 archaeologists, 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 palaeolithic 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 palaeolithic 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 aesthetic in every way than their ruder predecessors of the interglacial epoch.

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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 alone.’

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.

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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 hand-moulded.

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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 archaeologist, from the actual handicraft of the palaeolithic 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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