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The Artist-Inventor
Earlier this year I wrote on some of the inventions - and their inventors - which have made our lives as painters so much easier and more productive than those of artists in the past. Like artists, inventors tend to be creative people. In doing some reading the other day, I came to realise that one of the greatest inventions of all time was quite likely devised by an artist. No, I'm not talking about air-conditioning, the computer, or call-waiting. This one ranks right up there with the discovery of fire. I'm talking about the wheel. Although the Syrians around 3,500 BCE were the first to utilise the wheel on any kind of vehicle, the round, carved, stone disk, historians say, was first used some three thousand years before that in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) by a potter (an artist if there ever was one). Mounted on a pivot it was spun by an assistant, perhaps a child, since the potter's hands were both busy. With this "invention of the wheel," it became possible to produce perfectly round pots at a rate coil builders could only dream of. Oh, and did I mention, the inventor was probably a woman, inasmuch as such tasks as pottery making in ancient times usually fell to the female members of society.

Later versions of the potter's wheel included a stick inserted into a notch in the wheel to help propel the device. Some 7,500 years later, the pivot was extended downward to an identical flywheel for better speed control (also allowing the wheel to be spun by the nimble feet of the potter). Two or three hundred years later, a foot treadle was invented to facilitate a simpler, one-man operation, followed by variable-speed motors in the twentieth century.

What kind of pots did a ceramic artist 8,500 years ago produce on such a device? Actually, in shape and decoration, not all that different from what we might see today. They weren't glazed, of course. That didn't happen until about 1,500 BCE. But, aside from that, perhaps the most distinctive difference between then and now is that all the pots back then, being somewhat haphazardly fired earthenware, leaked. Water soaked through their porous mass. Of course, if used to store grain or other dry foodstuffs, that wouldn't have been a problem. And, speaking of glazes, the first ones probably were not used on pots, but by Mesopotamian architects on bricks, to make them more water resistant and attractive. Ceramic tile followed soon thereafter. The first such glazes were probably plain table salt thrown into the kiln and vaporised during firing, leaving a glassy surface on the bricks. According to archaeologists, the earliest pottery decorations included birds and other animals, stick figures, abstract designs, plant life, or sometimes just simple, incised lines running around the outside surface of the pot. Except perhaps for the stick figures, we might find similar designs today.

Of course discussing the ceramist's art requires us to think in terms of two radically different cultures - West and East. Actually, the oldest known ceramic vessels date from the Jomon period of Japanese history some 12,700 years ago. In fact, Jomon means "marked with rope" referring to the distinctive surface patterns of some pottery from that era. Wet braided rope was wrapped around such pottery before firing, possibly to prevent cracking. In addition, decorations of rope-like strands of clay were also added to such pots. Despite their age, Jomon pots were not crude or primitive. Often they were very ornate, highly sculptured, and marked by amazingly elaborate details and patterns. Such pots were all coil-built, of course. In the Orient, the potter's wheel seems to have come into use at a much later date than in the West, perhaps to make things easier once men began taking over the art.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 February 2001

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