An illustrated timeline of the history of pottery:

    The following is an illustrated timeline introduction into the history of pottery.  It is by no means complete and it is intended as an overview into this art form.  Where possible, modern adaptations of historical designs are also included.

    Pottery making is one of the oldest activities of humankind.  By exploring pottery throughout the ages, we can glimpse into our cultural histories.  Pottery was a functional item in daily life with its creation utilizing readily available resources and incorporating innovative designs into often functional art forms.  Many technique and design similarities appear throughout the world at different times in history.     

    Enjoy the journey!



                          Used by hunter/gatherers in Japan; coil


Used by groups of hunters and fisherman – Nile Valley.  Designs were made by dragging the spine of a fish across clay


Earliest pottery vessels of central Europe known as Bandkeramik decorated with incised lines and infilled with dots or cross-hatching – found from France to Hungary to Ukraine 


Painted beakers from Iran


        Decorated pottery; red geometric design


   Temple bureaucrats invented this incised cylinder seal to replace stamps previously used on tablets.  The seal could be rolled over larger areas and was also used for official decorations


   The earliest known pottery representations of humans in the Americas.  All figures were highly stylized

   In this example the simplicity of nude body contrasts with the elaborate and stylized hairstyle


   These standardized and sized pottery beakers were probably used for mead or honey sweetened brew popular during this time frame


Cluster vase


   The potter's wheel (thought to be invented by the Chinese circa 3,000 B.C.) was now widely used in the areas surrounding Crete.  Food storage vessels such as this were used to deliver olive oil, wine, grain and other agricultural products to such places as the palaces of Knossos in Minoan Crete.  The products were paid as a tax or tribute and much of bounty was used to support royal household.  Excess products were also exported overseas.  The following are also examples of pottery of Santorini, Greece - Akrotiri - during this same time period:    


   Decorative grooves in the clay are made with shells or impressed with fabric or cord.  This shard was found near Chiapas on the Mexican/Guatemala border.  It represents some of earliest ceramics in Mesoamerica and may be related to Chorrera ceramic tradition of Ecuador


   During this time period burying the dead was mostly abandoned and, instead, the dead were cremated with ashes buried in funeral urn in cemeteries known as urn-fields.  The urns are known for uniformity and similar urns were used for the rich and poor alike


   Ceramic figurines and other ceramic objects of burials have been found beneath floor of houses.  The social class of deceased was determined by number and type of objects buried with them.


   Red slipped pottery vessels with incised patterns, mostly geometric, have been discovered in the western Pacific Islands (including modern Tonga and Samoa)

   Ceramic stamps were used to decorate skin and fabric.  Discovery of the stamps indicates historic trading between Latin America including Costa Rica and Tlatilco, Mexico.


    This fragment of a Chorrera ceramic vessel design is reminiscent of Olmec motifs - possibly showing trading between South and Central America.

    Many Greeks expanded beyond their borders due to lack of space.  Their colonies influenced their non-Greek neighbors and gave them a taste for wine and perfume.  Pottery vessels were used for these luxuries beginning lucrative trade to now modern Italy.  Amphoras, first Greek then Roman (200 B.C.) were used for transporting wine and olive oil.

    The red figures on black illustrated wine parties.  Wine was drunk from pottery vessels. These types of pottery were produced in the most famous workshops in Attica (530 B.C.)  These designs were widely copied especially in the Greek colonies of southern Italy.


   The areas now known as Switzerland and France imported the potter's wheel from the Mediterranean world and incorporated new pottery techniques  with decorative patterns of curving spirals known as La Tène art named for the site first found in Switzerland.  These patterns are widely found on pottery throughout western and central Europe.     

   Qin Shi Huangdi was the emperor who unified China.  He was responsible for the building of the Great Wall.  He was buried with thousands of life-sized terra cotta models of warriors, chariots and horses.  It is said that the mausoleum and surrounding burial pits took 700,000 conscripted laborers 35 years to build.


   This terra cotta figurine represents Yakshi (the benign nature spirit) and represents the dress of the period.


   This incised pottery found in Louisiana is similar to Hopewell community pottery found in Illinois and the Ohio River Valley indicating trade between the areas.  The vessels were used for storage, transportation and cooking.


   Terra cotta bricks and tiles decorated with impressed patterns were used for building palaces and tombs.


   The Nazca culture created designs using anthropomorphic characters and iconography on their pottery objects.


   A glazed stoneware jar from the Han dynasty; wheel made; reduction fired



   These Zapotec funerary urns were produced on a prolific scale - stamped out from molds in a version of an early assembly line.


   Persia was the melting pot of religions.  Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire and was practiced alongside the Persian state religion, Zoroastrianism.  In addition to the official religions there were also many populist faiths as evidenced by small bowls with inscribed magical incantations in Aramaic, Syriac or Hebrew which were found buried beneath the floors of Mesopotamian houses.


   These glazed pots with distinctive indigenous styles were used as ceremonial items.


   Distinctive decorated pottery with brown line drawings on a beige background depicting scenes of hunting, warfare, feasts and other aspects of daily life.

   Grave goods including ceramics for use in the afterlife were included with corpses dressed with objects of gold, lapis lazuli and shells to indicate their relative wealth.


   These Mayan ceramic ceremonial vessels were decorated with monkeys and are examples of Toltec cultural influences

Historic and modern versions of whistles found in Peru and Central America.


   This Zoomorphic Efficy Vessel represents a stylized puma or jaguar with painted geometric motifs achieved using a resist technique


   Cattle farming and milk were an important part of diet.  Milk was collected and stored in bag-shaped ceramic containers.


   This polychrome pottery was probably influenced through trade contacts of Mayan civilizations to the north.


    This Chinese glazed stoneware was fired at extremely high temperatures in the Yue kilns of central China.  The glaze was usually a thin silver- green glaze and the pots were either plain or adorned with incised decoration.  Many of the pots were then exported to The Philippines, Indonesia, The Persian Gulf and Egypt.


This Sinagua bowl combined geometric designs and human forms.


   Animal symbolism such as a rattlesnake with falcon wings and deer antlers were Mississippian symbols for the underworld, the sky and the earth.


 Polychrome glaze ware from Kashan, a major center for ceramic production in the Seljik era


   This zoomorphic style known as Parita Polychrome is highly individualistic and painted in red, black and purple.


   These black on white ceramics were common grave goods from A.D. 900 - 1200.  Many have “kill” holes making them useless for practical purposes as they were intended for mortuary purposes.


   Korea's own distinct style of an eight-petaled porcelain cup on an inverted lotus.  This technique was derived from the Chinese tradition.


    Sgraffito-ware pottery was developed by Iranian potter.  The word "sgraffito" is derived from the Italian word “sgraffire” meaning "to scratch." The vessel is covered with a white slip and a design is  carved through it.  Glaze is applied before firing. 


   This pottery was traded as far south as southern Mexico and into southwestern North America

     ...and it is still a tradition that lives on today in the region:


   The Chancay ceramics of Peru specialized in the production of human statuettes, usually couples with outstretched arms and caps.


   The Middle Eastern ceramics of Iran displayed innovations such and blue and black painted underglaze decorations technically demanding for uses such as covers for entire tombs and niches in mosques (mihrabs).


Blue and white ware of fine porcelain and decorated commonly with a stylized peony motif .

   From the former Ottoman empire including current Rhodes, Greece.  The pottery often were designed as imitations of blue and white ware from China.


                        Meiping (plum blossom) vase,


        Wheel-thrown Earthenware Dish from Deruta, Italy

     A tradition that lives on in Tuscany today:


   From Catalonia: an earthenware apothecary storage jar;wheel-thrown and decorated with designs of geometric influence

                            ... and Spanish pottery today:   


                        An earthenware platter with molded relief


                        A salt-glazed "Bartman" pitcher with applied molded medallions


                        A soft paste porcelain enameled teapot with 2 spouts


                        Earthenware, hand-built pottery with painted decoration by Lucy Lewis


   Modeled in natural form of vegetables by Thomas Whieldon and Josiah Wedgewood in Staffordshire, England


                            A stoneware vase with relief decoration by Comfort Tiffany


                            A hand-built earthenware platter by Naomi Bitter and Nora Kochavi

                        Baltimore, MD, USA

                        Portland, OR, USA

                       Louisville, Kentucky, USA

***NOTE:   Also check the "Journeys" and "Video" sections of our website for other examples of contemporary pottery


Timelines of the Ancient world – Smithsonian Institution – 1993 – Chris Scarre

Ten Thousand Years of Pottery – Emmanual Cooper – Fourth Edition – 2000 – University of Pennsylvania Press

Misc. Photography by Sarah Young - 2001 to Present