The potter´s wheel: 3000 BC

Funeral roman pottery, 200-100 BC, Narbona

When a pot is built up from the base by hand, it is impossible that it should be perfectly round. The solution to this problem ia the potter’s wheel, which has been a crucial factor in the history of ceramics.

It is not known when or where the potter’s wheel is introduced. Indeed it is likely that it develops very gradually, from a platform on which the potter turns the pot before shaping another side (thus avoiding having to walk around it). By about 3000 BC a simple revolving wheel is a part of the potter’s equipment in Mesopotamia, the cradle of so many innovations.

Potter’s wheel

The potter´s wheel

Many early ceramics were hand-built using a simple coiling technique in which clay was rolled into long threads that were then pinched and beaten together to form the body of a vessel. In the coiling method of construction, all of the energy required to form the body of a piece is supplied directly by the hands of the potter. This changed with the introduction of the fast-wheel, early forms of which utilised energy stored in the rotating mass of the heavy stone wheel itself.

The wheel was wound-up and charged with energy by pushing it round with a stick, an arrangement that permitted the energy stored in the wheel to be finely directed to where it was required, at the point where the hands of the potter come into contact with the clay. Unlike hand-building, in wheel-throwing the bulk of the energy used does not come directly from the hands of the potter. The introduction of the fast-wheel brought benefits in the form of speed and a job that might have taken hours, or even days, to complete was reduced to one that could be done in minutes.

Early ceramics built by coiling were often placed on mats or large leaves to allow them to be worked more conveniently. This arrangement allowed the potter to turn the vessel under construction, rather than walk around it to add threads of clay and it has been proposed that the earliest forms of the potter’s wheel were developed as an extension to this procedure. The earliest versions of the wheel were probably turned slowly by hand or by foot while coiling a pot, but later developments allowed energy stored in a flywheel to be used to speed up the process of throwing.

It is not known when the potter’s wheel first came into use, but dates between about 6,000 BC to about 2,400 BC have been suggested. Many modern scholars suggest that it was first developed in Mesopotamia, although Egypt and China have also been claimed as possible places of origin. A stone potter’s wheel found at the Mesopotamian city of Ur in modern-day Iraq has been dated to about 3,000 BC, but fragments of wheel-thrown pottery of an even earlier date have been recovered in the same area. By the time of the early civilizations of the bronze age the use of the potter’s wheel had become widespread.

In the iron age the potter’s wheel in common use had a turning platform about a meter above the floor, connected by a long axle to a heavy flywheel at ground level. This arrangement allowed the potter to keep the turning-wheel rotating by kicking the flywheel with the foot, leaving both hands free for manipulating the vessel under construction. Use of the potter’s wheel became widespread throughout the Old World, but was unknown in the Pre-Columbian New World, where pottery was hand-made by methods that included coiling and beating. The use of the motor-driven potter’s wheel has become common in modern times, although human-powered ones are still in use and are much preferred by some potters.