Clay is one of the earliest materials used for the creation of goods, dating to the Neolithic era (c. 10,000 B.C.E.) which followed the Stone Age and preceded the Bronze Age. The Neolithic era is characterized by the formation of permanent settlements which later grew into villages. People raised crops and domesticated animals. No longer hunter-gatherers, humanity had the time and opportunity to refine complex crafts like ceramics which required advanced skills and technology. Craftspeople needed specialized knowledge of materials, firing technologies and glazes to create utilitarian clay vessels such as bowls, cups, dishes and lamps – or decorative objects such as beads or sculptures - which also required specific skill-sets. Later, pottery goods became an important part of regional and global trade networks owing to function coupled with artistry of form and decoration.
Mesopotamian Vase (c. Late 3rd millenium B.C.E.) by UnknownThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
This vase features images of cranes and reeds – attesting to the importance of water, plants and animals to the people of ancient Mesopotamia. The region's name translates to “land between the rivers,” a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates which traverse this area also known as the Fertile Crescent. Some of the earliest farming communities emerged here circa 9,000 B.C.E., enabling the formation of small villages, then independent cities and later, city-states with their own governments, social hierarchies and specialized labor forces such as the potter who created this vase. The use of the potter’s wheel and one of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform, developed here just prior to the time this vase was crafted.
Rattle-foot Bowl (Unknown) by unknown MayaThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
The Maya were known for their pottery, architecture and extensive knowledge of astronomy, as well as numerous other advanced technologies, including writing. The Maya are among the most well-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica, originating in the Yucatán around 2600 B.C.E., rising to prominence around 250 C.E. in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Rattle-foot bowls were often used for rituals incorporating sound. Use of these vessels would have been restricted to very specific members of society with particular title and status.
Fragment, Harpocrates Head (1st to 3rd century C.E.) by Roman-EgyptianThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
Terracotta statuettes have been found throughout the Mediterranean. Clay would be pressed into a re-usable mold allowing makers to scale up production. Harpocrates is the Greek god of silence, adapted from the Egyptian god Horus, whose attribute is the newborn sun. This fragment was part of a larger statuette made in Egypt around the period of the Roman occupation which began in 30 B.C.E. after the first Roman Emperor Octavian defeated the Pharaoh Cleopatra.
Hanging Pot (1000 to 1400) by ChimúThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
The Chimú resided in fertile river valleys located on a strip of desert on the northern coast of present-day Peru. The region was favorable for irrigating crops and access to large supplies of fish, both important to the economy of the Chimor Empire. The empire was one of the largest and most prosperous in South America between the 10th and 15th centuries, before being overtaken by the Inca around 1470. The Chimor Empire, comprised of many different ethnic groups, was known for its distinctive monochromatic pottery. Most citizens were artisans who used extensive trade networks to contribute to a thriving economy.
Byzantine Lamp (5th to 6th century C.E.) by Byzantine/Holy LandThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
Oil lamp technology has been around for tens of thousands of years, though the date of invention is disputed. Oil lamps were an early portable light source and the first known examples were improvised from shells. Over time, designs were refined to allow for a slower, cleaner burn and a well to hold the oil. Early lamps used animal fats as fuel. Later, plant sources like olives would be used as they burned cleaner, were plentiful in the east Mediterranean region and did not emit a strong smell when burned.
Vase, Sueki (late 19th century) by JapanThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
Sueki pottery translates literally as “offering ware” in Japanese and were originally used for funerary and ritual purposes. Introduced to Japan from Southern Korea (via China) around the mid-5th century, sueki pieces were then available only to the wealthy. By the early 7th century, mass production diminished their status and sueki came into use for utilitarian goods like vases, roofing tiles and serving ware. Sueki were fired at over 2,000 degrees in special tunnel-shaped kilns designed to maintain intense heat levels. These kilns were built with a door at one end, carefully calculated details such as the locations and scale of the firebox, sloped floors, silica linings, dampers and flues and finally, a chimney at the far end.
Dragon Ewer (15 - 16th century) by ChinaThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
The Ming Dynasty lasted 276 years (1368 – 1644) and was a period of great expansion. In the early stages of the dynasty, China had become a sea-faring nation, sending trade ships to India, the Persian Gulf and the East Africa coast well before the Europeans. Later, China exported its pottery around the world, creating new markets with its reputation for unparalleled quality. China began to make goods specifically for export to European markets, capitalizing on demand for quality wares and markets full of eager buyers.
Animal Head Vase (18th century) by JapanThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
Japan has one of the oldest pottery traditions. The earliest known examples date to 10,500 B.C.E. This vase was made during the Edo period (1603 – 1868), a time of great commercial enterprise and prosperity. Though the Japanese were isolationists during this era and trade with other countries was severely limited, the economy thrived, in part, due to advances in agriculture - freeing many laborers from a difficult life of farming. Scholar Louis G. Perez noted that in this period, Japan was perhaps the most urbanized country in the world. Local lords and merchants established many new kilns to meet increased demand for ceramics.
Dragon-fish Vase (1736 to 1796) by ChinaThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
In the 18th century trade between China and Europe flourished. China tightly controlled the market by limiting port access and imposing strict trade controls to maintain an economic advantage. China’s population and economy thrived exponentially in this period of growth and relative peace. Qianlong Emperor, who ruled during this time, was able to focus his attention to his role as a preserver and restorer of culture. He began amassing an extensive collection of paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, metal and pottery for the Imperial Collection, attesting to the value of ceramics as an important art form aside from its functional character.
Pot, Olla (1890) by ZuniThe Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
The Zuni are part of the Pueblo Indians of the United States, which is comprised of 19 tribes. Located in present-day New Mexico, many Zuni continue to live on ancestral lands in the Northeast portion of the state. Though the Zuni maintain many of their cultural traditions, contact with the Spanish in 1539 introduced new pottery forms such as this olla. Olla are characterized wide, rounded bodies and narrow necks and were used for storing water. Olla such as this would have initially been made for sale to colonists and later, tourists.
This exhibition is a small sampling of ceramics in the university’s collections which highlight a variety of cultures, periods and geographic regions. These objects are available for research to our community of students, faculty and researchers. For access to this or other objects in our collections, contact us at 973-275-2033 or firstname.lastname@example.org to make a research appointment.