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The First Potter
by [?]

Plenty of evidence to the same effect is now forthcoming for the modern inquirer. Among the ancient monuments of the Mississippi valley, Squier and Davis found the kilns in which the primitive pottery had been baked; and among their relics were partially burnt pots retaining in part the rinds of the gourds or calabashes on which they had been actually modelled. Along the Gulf of Mexico gourds were also used to give shape to the pot; and all over the world, even to this day, the gourd form is a very common one for pottery of all sorts, thus pointing back, dimly and curiously, to the original mode in which fictile ware generally came to be invented. In Fiji and in many parts of Africa vessels modelled upon natural forms are still universal. Of course all such pots as these are purely hand-made; the invention of the potter’s wheel, now so indissolubly associated in all our minds with the production of earthenware, belongs to an infinitely later and almost modern period.

And that consideration naturally suggests the fundamental question, When did the first potter live? The world (as Sir Henry Taylor has oracularly told us) knows nothing of its greatest men; and the very name of the father of all potters has been utterly forgotten in the lapse of ages. Indeed, paradoxical as it may sound to say so, one may reasonably doubt whether there was ever actually any one single man on whom one could definitely lay one’s finger, and say with confidence, Here we have the first potter. Pottery, no doubt, like most other things, grew by imperceptible degrees from wholly vague and rudimentary beginnings. Just as there were steam-engines before Watt, and locomotives before Stephenson, so there were pots before the first potter. Many men must have discovered separately, by half-unconscious trials, that a coat of mud rudely plastered over the bottom of a calabash prevented it from catching fire and spilling its contents; other men slowly learned to plaster the mud higher and ever higher up the sides; and yet others gradually introduced and patented new improvements for wholly encasing the entire cup in an inch thickness of carefully kneaded clay. Bit by bit the invention grew, like all great inventions, without any inventor. Thus the question of the date of the first potter practically resolves itself into the simpler question of the date of the earliest known pottery.

Did palaeolithic man, that antique naked crouching savage who hunted the mammoth, the reindeer, and the cave-bear among the frozen fields of interglacial Gaul and Britain–did palaeolithic man himself, in his rude rock-shelters, possess a knowledge of the art of pottery? That is a question which has been much debated amongst archaeologists, and which cannot even now be considered as finally settled before the tribunal of science. He must have drunk out of something or other, but whether he drank out of earthenware cups is still uncertain. It is pretty clear that the earliest drinking vessels used in Europe were neither bowls of earthenware nor shells of fruits, for the cold climate of interglacial times did not permit the growth in northern latitudes of such large natural vessels as gourds, calabashes, bamboos, or coco-nuts. In all probability the horns of the aurochs and the wild cattle, and the capacious skull of the fellow-man whose bones he had just picked at his ease for his cannibal supper, formed the aboriginal goblets and basins of the old black European savage. A curious verbal relic of the use of horns as drinking-cups survives indeed down to almost modern times in the Greek word keramic, still commonly applied to the art of pottery, and derived, of course, from keras, a horn; while as to skulls, not only were they frequently used as drinking-cups by our Scandinavian ancestors, but there still exists a very singular intermediate American vessel in which the clay has actually been moulded on a human skull as model, just as other vessels have been moulded on calabashes or other suitable vegetable shapes.