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pottery, the baked-clay wares of the entire ceramics field. For a description of the nature of the material, see clay.

Types of Pottery

It usually falls into three main classes—porous-bodied pottery, stoneware, and porcelain. Raw clay is transformed into a porous pottery when it is heated to a temperature of about 500℃. This pottery, unlike sun-dried clay, retains a permanent shape and does not disintegrate in water. Stoneware is produced by raising the temperature, and porcelain is baked at still greater heat. In this process part of the clay becomes vitrified, or glassy, and the strength of the pottery is increased.

Methods of Production

Pottery is formed while clay is in its plastic form. Either a long piece of clay is coiled and then smoothed, or the clay is centered upon a potter's wheel (used in Egypt before 4000 B.C.) that spins the clay while it is being shaped by the hand, or thrown. Decoration may be incised, and the piece is allowed to dry to a state of leather hardness before firing it in a kiln. The type of finish, depending on the kind or number of glazes, dictates the total number of firings. When slip and graffito are used, they are applied before the first firing. There are two types of fires—reducing and oxidizing. The former removes oxygen while the latter, a smokeless fire, adds it. Reduction and oxidation change the color of the fired clay and gave early potters their palette of red, buff, and black.


Early History

Pottery is one of the most enduring materials known to humankind. In most places it is the oldest and most widespread art; primitive peoples the world over have fashioned pots and bowls of baked clay for their daily use. Prehistoric (sometimes Neolithic) remains of pottery, e.g., in Scandinavia, England, France, Italy, Greece, and North and South America, have proved of great importance in archaeology and have often supplied a means of dating and establishing an early chronology. Some of the oldest pottery has been found in Japan and China, dated to at least 16,000 and 20,000 years old respectively. Pottery has also been of value as historical and literary records; ancient Assyrian and Babylonian writings have been inscribed upon clay tablets. Simple geometric patterns in monochrome, polychrome, or incised work are common to pottery of prehistoric and primitive cultures.

Pottery of the Ancient Mediterranean

By 1500 B.C. the use of glazes, such as the famous greens and blues, was known in Egypt. Especially noteworthy is the early Aegean pottery of the Minoan and Mycenaean periods with its curvilinear, painted decoration. In Assyria and Neo-Babylonia, painted and glazed bricks were in common use. The Ishtar gate in Babylon, with its ceramic reliefs, is an early example of the majolica technique.

The Greek vases (800–300 B.C.), famous for symmetry of form and beauty of decoration, include red, black, and varicolored examples. The last were for tombs only, as the colors were painted, unfired, and easily marred. The red ware is decorated with black figures, or the ground is black and the figures shown red. Water, oil, and wine jars were numerous. Of the Greco-Roman wares, the Arretine or Samian, also a red ware, was molded after first being turned on the wheel to the size of the mold, which carried the decoration in intaglio.

Pottery of Asia

Painted pottery of the Neolithic period has been found in China. By the 2d cent. B.C. the Early Han period had developed a green glaze which may have come from the Middle East. In the Sui period (A.D. 581–618) and the T'ang period (618–906), porcelain and porcelaneous ware (the envy of the Western world) began to be made and exported to Korea and Japan and to the Islamic world. Technical knowledge, however, was not exchanged, and Islam made no true porcelain.

Islamic pottery making was centered at Baghdad in the 10th cent. Blue and green clear glazes were used, and lusterware was first employed as an overglaze. Lusterware was highly developed under the Fatimites in Egypt (969–1171), and the technique continued in use at major pottery centers over the centuries that followed. During the 13th cent. Mongol domination of Persia brought renewed Chinese influence to Islamic pottery making. Fine examples of Hispano-Moorish pottery date from the 14th cent. Islamic architecture in the 15th cent. utilized ceramic tile in immense quantities, as on the Blue Mosque at Tabriz.

Pottery of Europe

In Europe there was little pottery of great aesthetic importance before the 15th cent., except perhaps some German stonewares. Majolica was mainly developed in Italy and from there spread to Spain, France (where it was called faience), and to Holland (where it came to be known as delftware). Majolica and stoneware were the main pottery forms in Europe until the advent (18th cent.) of porcelain.

Pottery of the Americas

Prehistoric pottery found in Peru, Mexico, and the SW United States reveals a high degree of skill in color, form, and decorative motifs. Baked-clay work by colonists in North America began in 1612 with the making of bricks and tiles in Virginia and Pennsylvania. In these states and among the Dutch settlers of New York, potteries were soon established. The first whiteware was made in 1684. A stoneware factory was opened in New York in 1735, and c.1750 the Jugtown pottery of North Carolina was first produced. Terra-cotta works were operating in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania after the middle of the 18th cent. Palatinate refugees produced slip-decorated and graffito earthenware, and their product formed the foundation of Shenandoah pottery.

In Philadelphia fine china was made (1769) for the first time in America. The potteries of Bennington, Vt., which opened in 1793, were known especially for their stoneware jugs; a variety of stoneware was also produced in several locations in New York state. East Liverpool, Ohio, since 1839 one of the foremost centers of the industry, produced the first American Rockingham ware. Also widely produced in the United States were redware, ironstone, and yellowware. Another center, begun in 1852 at Trenton, N.J., made fine Belleek or eggshell china. The Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia and the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago did much to awaken native consciousness of pottery as a form of art.

Modern Pottery

American art pottery flourished in the first half of the 20th cent., with works created by a variety of artisans, many of whom were employed by companies such as the Rookwood Pottery and Cincinnati Art Pottery. Much collected in the decades that followed, this art pottery was created in such styles as art nouveau, arts and crafts, and art deco. In addition, many of the major artists of the 20th cent. created exquisite ceramic works. Especially notable are those by Picasso, Matisse, and Miró. In spite of the continuing development of mass-production techniques and synthetic materials, the demand for hand-crafted ware of fine quality has not diminished. A variety of artisans make utilitarian objects as well as works of art using many methods of pottery production. Moreover, indigenous peoples, notably native Americans, continue to create a number of vessels adapted from traditional forms.


See L. A. Boger, The Dictionary of World Pottery and Porcelain (1970); W. E. Cox, Book of Pottery and Porcelain (2 vol., rev. ed. 1970); E. Cooper, A History of Pottery (1973); G. Savage and H. Newman, An Illustrated Dictionary of Ceramics (1974); R. Fournier, The Illustrated Dictionary of Pottery Decoration (1986).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the production of dishes, toys, lamps, brick, roofing tile, tile, and other objects from fired clay. The words goncharstvo(pottery), gonchar(gor”nchar; potter), and gorshok (gornets; pot) are derived from the Russian word gorn(kiln).

Discovered during the early Neolithic, pottery greatly enhanced man’s chances in the struggle for survival by making it possible to cook his food. In this sense pottery may be ranked with such great inventions as the use of fire, and according to the classification of Morgan and Engels, marks the transition from the wild to the barbaric stage. By the 15th through 17th centuries, an overwhelming majority of the world’s settled peoples had mastered the craft of pottery. Inhabitants of regions devoid of pottery clay (Polynesia), many nomadic tribes of Central and Middle Asia, and also Australians, Bushmen, inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, and some hunting tribes of Southeast Asia, northwestern America, and California, whose production forces were at a low level of development, were an exception.

Primitive pottery was a domestic production (in some tribes practiced mainly by women). Probably the earliest methods of preparing of vessels were to smear clay on the inside of woven baskets (which burned away when fired) or to “scratch out” bowls from whole lumps of clay. Other primitive ways to make vessels were to hollow out a lump of clay by placing it on a block and pounding it with a mallet, to model them from flat pieces of clay, and to build the walls with rows of clay coils or with spiral coils. The last two methods were dominant during transition to the craft method when potters began using a potter’s wheel and later a pottery kiln (formerly the articles were fired in an open fire or baked in the house oven). Professional potters appeared at different times among various peoples, but always at the stage of dissolution of the primitive communal societies and the rise of a class society (first in ancient Sumeria at the end of 4000 B.C.). The assortment and shapes of pottery wares reflect the characteristics of the everyday life and culture of peoples. The decoration of articles by painting, embossed ornaments, varnishing, and glazing is an important branch of folk art.


Voevodskii, M. V. “K izucheniu goncharnoi tekhniki pervobytno-kommunisticheskogo obshchestva . . . .” Sovetskaia arkheo-logiia, 1936, no. 1.
Lips, I. Proiskhozhdenie veshchei. Moscow, 1954. (Translated from German.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Objects made of clay which may be nonvitreous, porous, opaque, and glazed or unglazed; also included is earthenware such as stoneware.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. Any fired clayware which is produced by a clay worker.
2. The low-fired, porous, colored body ware, in contrast to white or buff-colored earthenware.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. articles, vessels, etc., made from earthenware and dried and baked in a kiln
2. a place where such articles are made
3. the craft or business of making such articles
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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