Pottery is the ceramic act of making pottery wares, of which major types include earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. The place where such wares are made is also called a pottery (plural “potteries”). Pottery also refers to the art or craft of a potter or the manufacture of pottery.
The definition of pottery used by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is “all fired ceramic wares that contain clay when formed, except technical, structural, and refractory products.” Some archaeologists use a different understanding of this definition by excluding ceramic objects such as figurines which are made by similar processes and of similar materials but are not vessels.
Pottery originates during the Neolithic period. Ceramic objects like the Gravettian culture Venus of Dolní Věstonice figurine discovered in the Czech Republic date back to 29,000–25,000 BC, and pottery vessels discovered in Jiangxi, China date back to 20,000 BP. Early Neolithic pottery has also been found in Jomon Japan (10,500 BC), the Russian Far East (14,000 BC), Sub-Saharan Africa and South America.
Early pots were made by what is known as the “coiling” method, which worked the clay into a long string that wound to form a shape that later made smooth walls. The potter’s wheel was probably invented in Mesopotamia by the 4th millennium BC, but spread across nearly all Eurasia and much of Africa, though it remained unknown in the New World until the arrival of Europeans. Decoration of the clay by incising and painting is found very widely, and was initially geometric, but often included figurative designs from very early on.
So important is pottery to the archaeology of prehistoric cultures that many are known by names taken from their distinctive, and often very fine, pottery, such as the Linear Pottery culture, Beaker culture, Globular Amphora culture, Corded Ware culture and Funnelbeaker culture, to take examples only from Neolithic Europe (approximately 7000-1800 BCE).
Ceramic art has generated many styles from its own tradition, but is often closely related to contemporary sculpture and metalwork. Many times in its history styles from the usually more prestigious and expensive art of metalworking have been copied in ceramics.
This can be seen in early Chinese ceramics, such as pottery and ceramic-wares of the Shang Dynasty, in Ancient Roman and Iranian pottery, and Rococo European styles, copying contemporary silverware shapes. A common use of ceramics is for “pots” – containers such as bowls, vases and amphorae, as well as other tableware, but figurines have been very widely made.
Although pottery figurines are found from earlier periods in Europe, the oldest pottery vessels come from East Asia, with finds in China and Japan, then still linked by a land bridge, and some in what is now the Russian Far East, providing several from between 20,000 and 10,000 BCE, although the vessels were simple utilitarian objects. Xianrendong Cave in Jiangxi province contained pottery fragments that date back to 20,000 years ago.