Features of clay

Clay is a fine-grained mass of weathered rocks, water-soluble silicates and oxides of several different elements. Clay is found in nature, it is malleable and hardens on drying or firing. The earliest ceramic finds consist of figures depicting humans and animals and are believed to have been used both as art and for ceremonial purposes. In several religions, the first humans are believed to have been created by clay. When the earliest agricultural cultures emerged 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, humans began to shape vessels and other household utensils out of clay to a greater extent. Pottery is one of the world’s oldest professions and the basic forms and functions of vessels have followed man for thousands of years right up to our time. The first vessels were thumbed together by stacked rings of clay. The Sumerians were the ones who, about 6,000 years ago, began to use a spinning hand-driven disc to shape clay. It was not until somewhere around year 0 that the foot-driven turntable was invented and the potter was given both hands free to shape his object. The significance of this activity to the Egyptians is manifested in the hieroglyph meaning “shape” or “form” which represents a person at a turntable.
In archeological ceramic material, traces of people are often clearly visible. Clay is soft and the finished object can, among other things, reveal skill and touch through traces of fingerprints. With an interdisciplinary combination of knowledge from both ceramics and archeology, studies of individual traces in older ceramics can reveal knowledge transfer, workshops and exchange between different geographical areas.
All different types of clays include water containing aluminum silicate which makes the clay malleable. Different types of clays contain different amounts of water – in a range from around 12% to 60% – and are therefore differently suited for different types of handling such as throwing, rolling or shaping with the hands. The risk of cracking during drying is higher with a clay that initially contains more water. The chemically bound water only leaves the clay at a temperature of around 300 to 500 degrees Celsius – and only at 900 degrees Celsius has all the water disappeared from the clay. Clay can be mixed with, for example, lime, feldspar, mica and ferrous substances and thus have different properties and appearances.
The shaping of a vessel can be seen as a collaboration between the ceramicist and the wet clay that spins on the turntable. There is a tension in the movement of the clay that is affected by the centrifugal force of the turntable and the hands of the ceramicist. The skin and nerves on the thrower’s palms and fingers form the boundary between the performer and the material. The clay itself is dumb but gets a dynamic force due to the rotation of the turntable that the thrower controls.
The relationship between the thrower and the clay is under constant development. Over time, it begins to allow dialogue. The thrower will never get to a point where he or she is perfect. On the contrary, the rotation offers endless learning and the development of skill because each situation – due to the fact that the physical conditions can never be identical – is unique.