5 Pots That Changed the World

A ceramic story

By Google Arts & Culture

Spouted Jar with Satyr Heads (4th - 5th century)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Human history could well be measured out in pots. Since the earliest civilizations, people have made vessels to carry and store food and liquid. These functional ceramics quickly began to be decorative and artistic. Scroll to see five important pots, from the Bronze Age to now.

Vessel with human form (2500–1800 BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

1. Bronze Age Vessel with Human Form, c. 2500 BCE

This plump little fellow is over three thousand years old, and an early example of anthropomorphic decoration of vessels.

He was found in the remains of Bronze Age villages around Troy, and probably formed part of the table-decorations of the higher-class families of these communities. A real piece of ceramic history.

Here you can see this pot amongst other human-faced friends at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Click and drag to explore.

Attic Panathenaic Amphora Attic Panathenaic Amphora (500–480 B.C.) by Kleophrades PainterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

2. Panatheniac Prize Amphora, c. 500 BCE

As with many aspects of Western culture, the history of artistic pots owes a lot to the Ancient Greeks. Vases, vessels, and amphorae were used to store water, wine, and oils. They were also, as with this beautiful example, used as prizes.

Around 550 BCE, the Greeks started holding competitions to celebrate the goddess Athena: the Panatheniac Games in Athens. The ceremonies included prizes such as this decorated amphora, given to the victor of the chariot race and filled with olive oil from sacred trees.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2016) by Ai WeiweiOscar Niemeyer Museum

3. Han Dynasty Urn (c. 206 BCE) dropped by Ai Wei Wei (1995)

The Han Dynasty (c. 206 BCE - 220 AD) was an Imperial dynasty in China roughly concurrent with the Roman Empire in Europe. The Han period produced many fine arts and crafts, including ceramic urns.

Ai Wei Wei, a contemporary Chinese artist and dissident, makes work that challenges historical and modern systems of power and oppression in China. In 1995 he took a Han Dynasty urn, worth anything between $2000 and $1 million...

...and dropped it onto the floor, smashing it to pieces. The act was photographed in a tryptych, simultaneously an act of destruction and preservation, a protest against old systems and a call for change.

These images are in fact a 2010 re-creation of the original photographs made using Lego bricks, a further commentary on art, pop culture, and 'built' systems. It's safe to say this pot changed the world.

pot (1984) by Magdalene OdundoYork Museums Trust

4. 'Pot' (1984)

Magdalene Odundo is a Kenyan-British contemporary ceramic artist whose pots blur the line between art and nature, mimicking bodily curves and spines. Odundo adds iron to the clay during the firing process to create orange tones.

Innovative EducationDubai Culture & Arts Authority

Odundo's work considers vessels as important cultural objects, expressions of community and togetherness. 

Installation photograph of Disobedient BodiesThe Hepworth Wakefield

Odundo makes ceramics in dialogue with other visual arts like fashion to highlight how pots can participate in many contemporary conversations. Her pots are vessels of meaning, as well as being beautiful objects. 

Grayson Perry: It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood, 2000 (2000) by Grayson PerryMudam Luxembourg – The Contemporary Art Museum of Luxembourg

5. 'It's Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood' (2000)

British artist Grayson Perry makes wacky and wonderful creations in many media, from tapestry to fabulous costumes. Perry is perhaps most famous, though, for their ceramics. Using traditional craft techniques, Perry challenges preconceived notions of gender, sexuality, and power.

These are pots that are equal parts personal and political. Perry decorates ceramics with autobiographical detail to highlight broader narratives of queer identity and political injustice.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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