Beneficial Results of a Tactical Failure
Rob Schweder

When I first examined this assignment, I decided that I would make some piece of pottery that I believed would have been useful to my ancestors. I wanted to make something simple, as I had no experience working with clay. I thought that a small bowl capable of holding a small amount of water would be my best bet. However, when I arrived at Aura Ceramics my intentions changed.

Once I sat down to make my pottery, I decided to make something I thought would have been useful to hunter-gatherer societies, to the individuals that first utilized pottery. I tried to imagine what sorts of vessels would have been a necessity to these people. I concluded that a larger container capable of carrying water over distances would have been more useful than a smaller bowl. I wanted to make a container large enough to transport water. It needed to be light enough to carry for long periods of time. And, it would have to be durable so as not to crack or spill water while being transported. With these thoughts in mind, I began molding my clay.

I started by making a fairly large basin that I estimated would have held just under a gallon of water. I figured that would have been sufficient for an individual's daily consumption. Next, I began condensing the top of the vessel into a small neck-like form in which something like a cork could be placed to prevent water from spilling out once inside the pottery. Finally, above the neck, I molded a funnel. The funnel would have made scooping and filling this container with water from an open source much easier.

Unfortunately, my creation did not survive the heating process, so I do not have a finished product to demonstrate. However, I can best describe the container as looking much like a spittoon with a smaller opening at the neck of the container. After observing the transitions which the pots my classmates made went through, I can conclude that my container would have been useful to early hunters and gatherers. After the pottery was processed in the kiln it weighed less than it had when the clay was wet. Judging the differential in these weights from the other students' creations, I believe my finished product, with the gallon of water it was meant to hold, would have weighed around ten pounds. At that weight, people could have certainly carried the container around all day without it being too burdensome. Probably something similar to my creation was utilized by these early societies. The difficulties I encountered in the heating process of my pottery allowed me to conceive of the problems early man must have faced. The firing of our clay was done in a kiln, and the temperature in the kiln was constant and well regulated for our creations. These early civilizations must have had extreme difficulty in trying to manage the intensity of their fires and knowing what temperatures best suited their purposes. We had the luxury of professionals monitoring the heating process. If we had been responsible for that step of the pottery process I believe our results would have been quite different, especially without any previous knowledge of what that step entailed.

I believe that the technologies I incorporated in the making of my pot were available to the before mentioned societies. These people would have discovered clay very early on, as it is readily observable under the uppermost layers of earth. Early people, who would have unearthed this clay and let it sit in the sun, would have seen that, while malleable when wet, the clay hardened in the heat and sunlight into a solid durable mass. Another means by which these humans would have noticed the beneficial characteristics of clay would have come with the invention of fire. The fire-pits used by these societies, probably first used for warmth, would have certainly had clay inside of them. After building fires in these holes they would have noticed how increasingly hardened that clay had become.

The clay early men and women used would have probably been "red clay". Clay that had good, coarse consistency would have proved more manageable for the bigger vessels. The clay we used for making our pottery had a very fine, soft consistency. As a result, when trying to make a fairly large container I found that the clay would very often give way under its own weight. The clay we used at Aura Ceramics, I found out after consulting with some of the full-time workers, is much more suitable for molds or sculptures that can maintain their form until placed in the kiln. Many of the examples of pottery and relics of ancient pottery I have seen appear to be of a coarser grain than that which we used in class. Much of this ancient pottery served many other uses than those I have already noted.

One of pottery's predominant uses in these early years revolved around cooking. Cooking many of the plants and animals in pottery made them more palatable and nutritive. I would imagine that another method enhanced by the invention of pottery was the transportation of domesticated plants. Plants were carried more easily from place to place, and were able to be stored for a much longer period of time (without losing their nutritional value), inside these vessels of pottery. Also, the surpluses of their crop yields were able to be stored for longer periods of time. All of these advantages made the emergence of pottery useful to these early societies. However, I believe they did not provide the primary function of pottery.

The earliest examples of pottery that I have seen have had aesthetic value. They surely met practical needs as well, but the beauty is what appears most distinctively. Taking this into account one could conclude that pottery also functioned as social tools for these early societies. Possibly, the owning of the more beautiful pottery was a means of establishing social order. Pottery could have been seen as a prestigious good, and only the most prominent members of a particular society would have possessed the most beautiful pieces. The pottery may have been an important factor in economic commerce, especially for trading in exchange for other goods. Those early humans who did not have the domesticated goods they needed may have traded works of pottery for those staples. Another reason for aestheticism in pottery may have been a means of representing cultural identities. Distinctive techniques of decoration and style differentiated societies. In retrospect, it seems that the style of pottery each of these different societies utilized may have been a means of identifying the culture they represented, a way of distinguishing one society from another.

Identity may not have been the only reason that certain groups of people used similar styles in their pottery. I say this after observing trends that developed in our own experimental community. I noticed that many people who were not sure how to go about creating a vessel would look around the room and try to imitate successful techniques from their other classmates. I could have been a little guilty of that myself. Our work on this project also gave me some new insight on the whole idea of aesthetics, as it pertained to early man, when it came to making our own vessels. Individually, it seemed to me, we were each trying to make something at least somewhat different from and more original, if not more beautiful, than our classmates' projects. I could imagine the same kind of competition existing between members of these early pottery-making societies. The aesthetic qualities those early ceramics contained may have originally stemmed from a competitiveness to make something better and more attractive than someone else had.

I think the practical uses of pottery for these early civilizations would have been very recognizable. From my own experience I found that making a functional piece was not very difficult, and that it would have been a trade that even these ancient humans could accomplish. My attempt at pottery was not successful, but I think my goal would have been attainable, given time for a few more efforts. However, the beautiful works created in the "Old World" suggest a social and economic system we do not expect from such primitive times. The pottery became symbols of hierarchical status, dividing classes of people and societies, much as we are accustomed to in the "New World."