The origin of the traditional pottery wheel remains a debate in some circles, but most agree that it first appeared in the Sumerian civilization in 4000 BC. Sumeria exists in modern-day southern Iraq. Its invention brought a revolution to society as cities could now support larger populations because of the mass production of pots. Previously, we spoke about this in the article, “Who Invented the Pottery Wheel?“
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Evolution of the Traditional Pottery Wheel
Today, most people think of the traditional pottery wheel as the kick wheel. The kick-wheel spins from the potter kicking the wheel. This shows only the most recent evolution of the traditional pottery wheel because improvements have happened over the centuries.
In the past, the potter used an apprentice or an assistant to turn the wheel while he worked. It is important to know how the kick wheel of today differs from what it looked like in the past.
Unknown in the Americas
While the pottery wheel showed up in Africa, Asia, and Europe, it remained unheard of in the Americas until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1492. Even today, some traditional Native American ceramics artists do not use the pottery wheel out of respect for their traditions.
How Did They Make Pottery without the Wheel?
Before they had the traditional pottery wheel, potters made pots with several methods that included:
Unlike the wheel, handmade pottery has a more rustic look. Some say handmade pottery exhibits more personality, but someone who wants to sell pottery will usually do pottery on the wheel because it looks better, and they can produce it faster.
Where the Pottery Wheel Became Widely Used
Because it allowed ancient cultures to increase the scale of their production, the traditional pottery wheel saw widespread use throughout the Old World. The great civilizations that used the pottery wheel included:
The use of the traditional pottery wheel became widespread because of how it kept up with the demand in civilizations across the world. It spurred them forward as cities doubled in size, and people shifted from nomadic lifestyles to agrarian lifestyles.
3000 BC: Emergence of the Kick-Wheel
Until the start of 3000 BC, potters did not use the kick-wheel form of the traditional pottery wheel. At the start of 3000 BC, they lengthened the turntable shaft and added a flywheel. This shows the first entrance of what people consider today’s kick-wheel.
They kicked the flywheel and pulled it with their left hand. The right hand would shape the clay. During this time, the counter-clockwise motion of the pottery wheel began, favoring right-handed people. That is significant because, over the centuries, left-handed people were seen as a bad omen in many cultures. For that reason, they did not have the clockwise motion of the pottery wheel at the time.
Pottery Wheel Mythology
More than one culture built mythologies around the pottery wheel, which should demonstrate its influence. In ancient Egypt, the deity Khnum, the ram-headed god of fertility, was always depicted at the pottery wheel. Khnum was said to have shaped humans from the clay of the Nile. He molded heaven and earth at the pottery wheel.
Many historians argue the pottery wheel as the most significant piece of technology in ancient Egypt, second only to the lever. Part of the reason for this came from how it signaled the move toward more advanced technologies.
Despite the popularity of the pottery wheel during this time, no one knows where the wheel came from. Did it come from ancient Egypt? Even the invention of the wheel continues to have debates over which civilization invented it—most evidence points to the Sumerians, but like with writing, it may have come from multiple civilizations.
However, most agree that, while not invented there, the pottery wheel first emerged in Egypt during the Old Kingdom period, also known as the Age of Pyramids (3000 BC).
Aegean Civilizations and the Traditional Pottery Wheel
When the fast pottery wheel came to Crete in during the Early Bronze Age (3000 BC to 1200 BC), it arrived at the same time as it did on the mainland and in the Cyclades. At its emergence, Cretan pottery was experiencing a revolution. The finer vases used dark and shiny paints—the most common colors used included black, red, and brown. This type of pottery flourished in Crete from 2200 BC to 1600 BC.
To give an example of this type of pottery, think of the Disney movie Hercules where they use a black and red vase to depict scenes in the movie. Athens, in particular, became famous for this Greek style of pottery.
Other known sites for the traditional pottery wheel on the Greek peninsula include ancient Corinth and ancient Athens. The Greeks especially had a reputation for their vases.
How Does the 16th Century Pottery Wheel Differ from the 19th Century Wheel?
The biggest difference between the 16th-century wheel and the 19th-century wheel comes from the materials used for making them. Pottery wheels in the 19th century used iron and steel rods with greased metal bearings. Contrast that with the 16th century; most pottery wheels consisted of wood with greased leather. They used a metal point with a glass socket found at the base of the wheel.
The difference between the pottery wheel in China and Japan and the pottery wheel of the West came from how China and Japan didn’t have a raised seat with the pottery wheel.
In the West, people would sit in a raised seat to do pottery. Traditionally, the eastern pottery wheel turns clockwise, favoring the left hand, while the pottery wheel in the West turns counter-clockwise, favoring the right hand. In Hinduism, like Islam and Christianity, they traditionally see the use of the left hand as abhorrent.
Here’s another difference in the pottery wheels between the 16th century and the 19th century. Up until the 18th century, the throwing technique only happened with a fast, low-friction, and heavy wheel. They didn’t do this until pottery wheels began to develop mechanical power. The potters who did this technique at the time were called Momentum Potters.
They call it throwing because they kick the wheel, then throw the clay on it. Today’s modern kick wheels have a motor that lets the wheel get up to speed so you do not have to kick the wheel as much to get it spinning and electric Pottery Wheels with a foot pedal.
Who Were the First Cultures to Use the Pottery Wheel?
Archaeologists say the Sumerians of modern-day southern Iraq first made use out of the pottery wheel, but other early cultures that used it included the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Chinese, and Indus Valley Civilization. The pottery wheel may have started in Sumeria, but it soon became prevalent everywhere in the Old World because it revolutionized society wherever it touched.
Think of how cultures across the world have adopted computers. Every country in the world has computers because of their convenience. Even in countries with low computer ownership like Bangladesh (5%), Pakistan (8%), and Indonesia (11%), you can still find computers. The same could be said of the pottery wheel as its technology began to spread.
Everyone adopted the pottery wheel because they could manufacture pots much faster, which allowed them to meet the demand. Across Europe, the pottery wheel went into widespread use around 1000 BC. Most cultures eventually adopted the pottery wheel, as it allowed them to revolutionize their societies through the mass production of pots.
The Pottery Wheel: Leading to the Invention of the Wheel?
Archaeologists don’t believe that the wheel started as a mechanical component in chariots. Strong evidence suggests that the wheel first started as a potter’s wheel. Not only did the invention of the pottery wheel lead to the mass production of pots, but it also inspired the wheel’s use for things like chariots. Many technologies came out of the pottery wheel because of what it inspired further down the road.
How the Fast Wheel and Slow Wheel Differed
Having previously mentioned the fast wheel and the slow wheel, it would be helpful to know the difference between the two. The fast wheel arrived later because potters started with the slow wheel. It lasted for around a century before most potters in Europe and Asia had moved on to the fast wheel.
The slow wheel made use out of a simple moving platform. On the other hand, the fast wheel used a platform like the slow wheel, but it spun on an axle, similar to what someone would see with a toy top.
The fast wheel was a breakthrough technology for the time because of how it allowed potters to reproduce the same work easily, and they could make pots more quickly than before. To paint a picture, in Japan, even apprentices at the wheel can produce between 300 to 400 Yunomi cups (a tall form of a teacup) per day at the wheel. This uses the model of the fast wheel, which should paint a picture of what was possible in the past.
Kilns Developed Alongside the Pottery Wheel
Speaking about the pottery wheel and its development, people should understand how it didn’t develop in a vacuum. As the traditional wheel continued to improve, they improved the kiln too. The earliest kilns made use of a bonfire from a hole in the ground. It became known as Pit Pottery. Over the centuries, technology made vast improvements and became more complex than before.
This matters because how ceramics get fired will influence the look and feel of the piece. Today, people have three types of kilns: electric, gas, and wood.
They have the longest history because people used them for thousands of years. The issue with a wood kiln comes from the labor required. The potter must keep stoking and fueling the fire, keeping the temperature high.
Wood also takes double the time as gas or electric, which is why many potters today won’t use it. However, this kiln would create its own glaze as the ash lands on the pottery. Some potters still use it because of that.
Gas kilns keep the oxygen out during the firing. While this makes the gas kiln less predictable and prone to mixed results, some potters pick the gas kiln for its rich and earthy colors.
Beware: Consistency has proven difficult with gas kilns, which has made some potters avoid it.
These Kilns rank as the newest addition to pottery, and they cost less too, which has made them the most popular today. Fired in oxidation, this leads to a consistent structure throughout the pottery. The results tend to be better. It’s hard to say when electric kilns were first invented, but they at least go back to 1947.
Over the years, some of the improvements made to kilns include:
- The Chinese developed kilns capable of firing at 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit (2000 BC)
- The gas kiln gets invented (1800s)
- Kiln seasoning invented to accelerate drying wood (1920s)
Fitting of the pottery wheel, archaeologists found the earliest version of the pottery kiln at the Yarim Tepe site in northern Iraq. It dates back to 6000 BC. However, most believe that Egyptians invented the first kilns.
How Pottery was First Invented
An interesting fact worth mentioning, pottery before the traditional pottery wheel’s invention happened as people carried water in handwoven baskets. They collected the water from the rivers, and it would have clay inside it. Eventually, people realized that they could make pots out of this as the clay took the basket’s shape.
The earliest known ceramics date back to 29,000 BC to 25,000 BC with the Gravettian figurines. Archaeologists often study the pottery of a culture because it serves as some of the best-preserved evidence.
Since its first emergence in Sumeria, the pottery wheel has changed society in ways that you might expect and in ways that you never imagined. It has evolved from a basic wheel to an electric wheel. Throughout much of known human history, pottery has been with us in one form or another, but the pottery wheel’s invention helped to make city-based civilization possible.