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The First Potter
by [?]

When other conscious and intentional ornamentation began to supersede these rude natural and undesigned patterns, they were at first mere rough attempts on the part of the early potter to imitate, with the simple means at his disposal, the characteristic marks of the ropes or wickerwork by which the older vessels were necessarily surrounded. He had gradually learned, as Mr. Tylor well puts it, that clay alone or with some mixture of sand is capable of being used without any extraneous support for the manufacture of drinking and cooking vessels. He therefore began to model rudely thin globular bowls with his own hands, dispensing with the aid of thongs or basketwork. But he still naturally continued to imitate the original shapes–the gourd, the calabash, the plaited net, the round basket; and his eye required the familiar decoration which naturally resulted from the use of some one or other among these primitive methods. So he tried his hand at deliberate ornament in his own simple untutored fashion.

It was quite literally his hand, indeed, that he tried at first; for the earliest decoration upon paleolithic pottery is made by pressing the fingers into the clay so as to produce a couple of deep parallel furrows, which is the sole attempt at ornament on M. Joly’s Nabrigas specimen; while the urns and drinking-cups taken from our English long barrows are adorned with really pretty and effective patterns, produced by pressing the tip of the finger and the nail into the plastic material. It is wonderful what capital and varied results you can get with no more recondite graver than the human finger-nail, sometimes turned front downward, sometimes back downward, and sometimes used to egg up the moist clay into small jagged and relieved designs. Most of these patterns are more or less plaitlike in arrangement, evidently suggested to the mind of the potter by the primitive marks of the old basketwork. But, as time went on, the early artist learned to press into his service new implements, pieces of wood, bone scrapers, and the flint knife itself, with which he incised more regular patterns, straight or zigzag lines, rows of dots, squares and triangles, concentric circles, and even the mystic cross and swastika, the sacred symbols of yet unborn and undreamt-of religions. As yet, there was no direct imitation of plant or animal forms; once only, on a single specimen from a Swiss lake dwelling, are the stem and veins of a leaf dimly figured on the handiwork of the European prehistoric potter. Ornament in its pure form, as pattern merely, had begun to exist; imitative work as such was yet unknown, or almost unknown, to the eastern hemisphere.

In America, it was quite otherwise. The forgotten people who built the mounds of Ohio and the great tumuli of the Mississippi valley decorated their pottery not only with animal figures, such as snakes, fish, frogs, and turtles, but also with human heads and faces, many of them evidently modelled from the life, and some of them quite unmistakably genuine portraits. On one such vase, found in Arkansas, and figured by the Marquis de Nadaillac in his excellent work on Prehistoric America, the ornamentation consists (in true Red Indian taste) of skeleton hands, interspersed with crossbones; and the delicacy and anatomical correctness of the detail inevitably suggest the idea that the unknown artist must have worked with the actual hand of his slaughtered enemy lying for a model on the table before him. Much of the early American pottery is also coloured as well as figured, and that with considerable real taste; the pigments were applied, however, after the baking, and so possess little stability or permanence of character. But pots and vases of these advanced styles have got so far ahead of the first potter that we have really little or no business with them in this paper.

Prehistoric European pottery has never a spout, but it often indulges in some simple form of ear or handle. The very ancient British bowl from Bavant Long Barrow–produced by that old squat Finnlike race which preceded the ‘Ancient Britons’ of our old-fashioned school-books–has two ear-shaped handles projecting just below the rim, exactly as in the modern form of vessel known as a crock, and still familiarly used for household purposes. This long survival of a common domestic shape from the most remote prehistoric antiquity to our own time is very significant and very interesting. Many of the old British pots have also a hole or two holes pierced through them, near the top, evidently for the purpose of putting in a string or rope by way of a handle. With the round barrows, which belong to the Bronze Age, and contain the remains of a later and more civilised Celtic population, we get far more advanced forms of pottery. Burial here is preceded by cremation, and the ashes are enclosed in urns, many of which are very beautiful in form and exquisitely decorated. Cremation, as Professor Rolleston used feelingly to plead, is bad for the comparative anatomist and ethnographer, but it is passing well for the collector of pottery. Where burning exists as a common practice, there urns are frequent, and pottery an art in great request. Drinking-cups and perforated incense burners accompany the dead in the round barrows; but the use of the potter’s wheel is still unknown, and all the urns and vases belonging to this age are still hand-moulded.