Ceramics Today
Home | Articles | CT Update | Gallery | Contact | Search
Links A-Z

The Origins of the Potter's Wheel
by Victor Bryant

The Egyptian Potter (male) - shown in Tomb Paintings

The earliest records of the potter's trade and in particular the development of the wheel can be seen in the records and pictures made by the Egyptians from about 2500 BC. down to Roman times. Below are scenes which illustrate the essentials of the potters craft in ancient Egypt. These line drawings are based on wall paintings in Egyptian tombs. Click on the thumbnail image for a larger version.

Preparing clay - kneading the clay with the feet. Preparing clay - kneading the clay with the feet.

Wheel-Making 1An assistant holding a finished bowl whilst the potter may be decorating or smoothing a similar small bowl on top of a clay hump. He is pulling the turntable with the other hand. It is probably not a fast wheel.

Two potters on wheelsTwo potters using turntables; one seems to be removing small bowl with a string, whilst the other is smoothing the rim of a vase.


Lighting Kiln A simple reference to lighting the kiln.

Loading KilnTaking pots from the kiln. One man is handing pots to another. Notice the implication of the hot atmosphere: they are wearing little or no clothes.

Carrying pots awayCarrying the fired pots away in pairs of wicker baskets, using a wooden yoke across the shoulders to spread the heavy weight.


Turntables and Wheels in Egypt

The invention of a simple wooden turntable probably occurred before 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, during the next 2000 years or more, depict potters at work using a number of different versions of turntables made from wood and stone.

These drawings show in more detail the structure of turntables which were devised. Both types of turntable appear in early Egyptian wall-paintings. By this time pottery vessels could now be coiled and smoothed very evenly; and made quite quickly.

The little limestone statuette of an ancient Egyptian potter was made about 2000 BC. It helps us to see how the potter's wheel evolved from a simple turntable pulled round with the hand. The technique was at first just a faster method of coiling. Village potters still use this method in some parts of the world.

The earliest turntables were probably not very free-turning, but gradually potters learned how to make the shaft/pivot/bearings with less friction, and much heavier turntables. Both improvements increased the speed, momentum and power of the wheel. Eventually it would become possible for a faster and heavier turntable/potter's wheel to be used for "throwing" a pot.

With a Wheel - New Shapes And Decoration

The appearance of stemmed clay goblets and pottery decoration with smooth spirals and true circles are evidence of the use of the potters wheel.

The Goblet: this shape consists of two separate forms - a bowl and a stem. It is quite possible to coil a dish or bowl with a stem in clay without using a wheel, but the whole form will have a somewhat irregular quality.

In fact potters only began making bowls with stems when the wheel arrived. - A variety of smooth regular curved shapes can be made quickly and easily using a potters wheel. When leather hard the pieces can be joined together with slip.

Evidence of the Faster Wheel

A much later example from Cyprus in the 7th century BC. This terracotta flask was thrown in three parts, joined together and then brush painted with slip on a wheel - circular lines, bands and spirals.

The Fast Coiling Method Flourished

Strangely, the technique of making a pot changed only gradually over the centuries, even though the pottery wheel improved quite rapidly. Most pots were still made by coiling but the faster wheel enabled much larger coils to be blended together faster and gradually squashed and smoothed into a thin even wall using fingers and ribs. This "Fast Coiling" method is still common in many village potteries of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia even today. The "throwing" technique never fully developed in many cultures. Potters used the wheel for faster smoother coiling, often using soft but enormously thick coils. Enormous storage jars were made by coiling and we can still find village potters today working this way in Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Coiling on the Wheel Today

In this photo a 20th century Afghan village potter is building up coils onto a wheel ready to press and smooth them together to raise the wall of this pot.

Here a 20th century Turkish potter adds a coil to a pot he is making on a wheel. He turns the heavy flywheel slowly with his foot whilst gradually lowering the thick coil of clay off his shoulder onto the stiff wall of the partly built pot.

Most village potters in Crete continue to made pots essentially by coiling on a wheel. Here are two photographs of Cretan potters.
First photo: The coil of clay looks like a long french bread roll.

In the second photo the potter has thinned and smoothed out the last coil adding to the height of the pot wall. He uses a flat piece of bone for smoothing. After allowing the soft wall to dry a little and stiffen up, the next coil would be added and the process repeated.

These stacks of fired storage jars were made by the two Cretan potters shown fast coiling similar pots. The pots were fired in a simple open updraft kiln using vine clippings as fuel.

High or Low?

From the Eastern Mediterranean world into Europe the potters wheel developed into a bench high turntable with a large heavy flywheel at foot level, as illustrated in a book on pottery making techniques from 16th century Italy.

Low Friction bearings and a Heavy Flywheel

19th century French potters using sturdy fast wheels, but very similar in design to the previous 16th century ones.
Until the continuous power-driven wheel arrived, the throwing technique was possible only with a low friction, fast, heavy momentum wheel. Where such smoother running heavy wheels were devised the technique of 'throwing' did gradually develop. "Throwing" seems a puzzling use of the modern English word, but it derives from the Old English or Saxon term "to twist".

The Cyclical Throwing Technique

Throwing with this type of wheel is cyclical. The potter kicks the heavy flywheel until it is revolving quite fast then works on the lump of fairly soft clay. As the speed of the wheel drops, it become more difficult to work on the clay. So the potter stops throwing and kicks the flywheel up to speed again. This cyclical process is repeated until the work is finished. The lump of clay used is relatively soft, and slurry, rather than water, is used for lubrication. A large apron of some sort is needed for protection as usually there is no tray! A large sheet of soft leather was used as well in later workshops. Compare the last two illustrations.

The Basic Momentum Wheel

The main difference between the 16ht and the 19th century wheels is in the materials used to make them. Like the 16th century Italian wheel, the model on the left is mostly made of wood with a strip of greased leather used as an upper bearing and a metal point and a stone or glass socket at the base.

The Modern Momentum Wheel

Like the 19th century French example, later versions from more recent times would use a thick iron or steel rod and greased metal bearings. The most recent models models run very smoothly and have very little friction and are almost silent. Until the industrial revolution in 18-19th century Europe the potter's wheel hardly changed. Many individual potters today still prefer this silent cyclical momentum kick wheel to the modern variable speed electric wheel.

Differences East and West

From the Indian continent to the Far Eastern World a distinctive variation of the potter's wheel developed. The heavy flywheel itself was often the throwing table. Sometimes as shown here balanced on a fine point with the weight carefully distributed. Instead of kicking the wheel it was speeded up using a rod or stick.

In China and Japan it is was usual for the potter to sit at or near ground level, not on a raised seat as in the West. Sometimes, controlling the speed of the wheel was the job of an assistant.

Inexplicably the Eastern potter has traditionally turned his wheel clockwise whilst Western potter usually turns his anti clockwise! Image: Shoji Hamada at work.

Trying out the technique

For anyone today who has only used an electric wheel, throwing on a traditional momentum wheel is a new and unnerving experience. It is however easy to understand and can become addictive.

    The process is cyclical:
  • The wheel or flywheel is turned or kicked until moving fast enough to throw or centre.
  • A fairly soft clay ball is then centred and opened out. Gradually friction will cause the wheel to slow down. At some point you stop throwing. Only you can decide when the speed becomes too slow.
  • The wheel has then to be kicked or turned until it is up to a fast speed once again.
  • This cyclical process (kicking then throwing) is repeated until the pot is finished.
  • Slurry rather than water lubricates the pot.

Summary: The Origin and Development of the Potters Wheel

  • The Potters Wheel, as we understand it today, was not suddenly invented. The first steps were probably using a shallow dish, bowl or even a large shell for building a coiled pot. This technique probably dates back to perhaps 4000 BC.
  • The invention of a simple wooden turntable probably occurred before 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings depict potters using turntables made from wood and stone.
  • The earliest turntables were probably not very free-turning and could only be used for easier coiling.
  • When the pottery turntable/wheel was being developed in Southern Iraq during the 4th millennia BC. production increased rapidly. Pottery making became a full-time occupation. Men became the potters.
  • Small turntables became larger. A smoother running shaft with a heavier throwing head or large flywheel and bearings with less friction progressively improved the speed and power of the wheel.
  • A potter's assistant could turn the wheel around or a low flywheel could be slowly kicked by the potter.
  • Strangely, the technique of making a pot changed only gradually. The "Fast Coiling" method using a wheel is still common in many village potteries of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia even today.
  • "Throwing" derives from the Old Saxon term "to twist".
  • Until the 18th century the throwing technique was only possible with a low friction, fast, heavy wheel, called a momentum potters wheel until the 18th century when mechanical power wheels began to be developed.
  • The throwing technique using a momentum wheel in cyclical (kick then throw; repeat). By contrast a mechanical/electrical power wheel can usually run at a continuous steady speed or varying speeds controlled by a foot pedal.
Victor Bryant ©1994, 2001

Email Victor if you want to find out more about Ceramic Web Tutorials or make a comment.

More Articles

© Ceramics Today