The maker of earthenware pots, dishes and other vessels has been a well-known artisan from very early times. A potter’s workshop discovered at Lachish is thought to be of the period dating from about 1200 to 1500 B.C.E. Even before that time, however, potters fashioned clay into vessels, baking these, and thus producing hardened utensils that would not soften when wet. The potter might work alone, but he sometimes had assistants, frequently apprentices. Among the Hebrews a group of royal potters seems to have existed at one time.—1 Chron. 4:21-23.
A typical method of making pottery began with such steps as washing and purifying the clay of foreign matter, weathering it, and trampling the moistened clay by foot to make it pasty and malleable. (Isa. 41:25) Next the clay was kneaded by hand and then placed on the potter’s wheel.
The early potter’s wheel was generally made of stone (though sometimes of wood) and was, basically, a flat disk centered on a vertical axle and made to rotate horizontally. Heavy material at its edge gave the disk stability and momentum as it was turned by hand. The later addition of a larger, heavier lower wheel (on the same shaft as the top wheel and also revolving horizontally) enabled the seated potter to rotate the wheels by foot.
Having “thrown” or placed the shapeless clay on the wheel, the potter used his hands to form a vessel as the wheel was turned. (Jer. 18:3, 4) The utensil might next be dried somewhat in the sun and again put on the wheel, where the potter might employ pebbles, shells or some implement to smooth and burnish it and to impart a design to its surface. Methods varied, but he could give it a rope pattern, for instance, by pressing a twisted cord against the still-moist article. Vessels were often painted decoratively. Others were glazed (Prov. 26:23) and then fired or baked in the nearby pottery kiln. Or, colored “slip” (potter’s clay in a semiliquid state) might be applied for decorative purposes, after which the article was again fired in the kiln.
The potter made articles ranging from large jars (Lam. 4:2) to lamps, ovens and toys, such as dolls and animal figures. Bowls, cups, flasks and other vessels were among his products. (Lev. 15:12; 2 Sam. 17:28; Jer. 19:1; Luke 22:10) He also produced cooking pots and some griddles. Earthenware items were sometimes stamped to show where they were made. The potter frequently stamped his own “trademark” on a pot handle.
Sometimes the potter used an open mold, into which the clay was pressed to pick up details. In later times lamps were often made in that way, in two pieces that were joined when the clay had dried to about a leathery hardness. Occasionally things were molded by hand without using the wheel, as when making toys and household ovens. Usually, however, the potter used the wheel.
Broken pieces of pottery are often discovered at archaeological sites, sometimes in great numbers. (See POTSHERD.) The kinds of pottery found are aids in identifying different cultures, or in dating occupation layers at such sites, as are inscriptions sometimes appearing on these items. Estimates of population density of a particular place in ancient times have also been based on the quantity of such fragments discovered there.
The potter’s authority over the clay is used illustratively to show Jehovah’s sovereignty over individuals and nations. (Isa. 29:15, 16; 64:8) To God the house of Israel was “as the clay in the hand of the potter,” He being the Great Potter. (Jer. 18:1-10) Man is in no position to contend with God, just as clay would not be expected to challenge the one shaping it. (Isa. 45:9) As an earthenware vessel can be smashed, so Jehovah can bring devastating calamity upon a people in punishment for wrongdoing.—Jer. 19:1-11.
Concerning the Messianic king’s exercise of God-given authority against the nations, it was foretold: “You will break them with an iron scepter, as though a potter’s vessel you will dash them to pieces.”—Ps. 2:9; compare Daniel 2:44; Revelation 2:26, 27; 12:5.
From a single lump of clay the potter could make a vessel for an honorable use and another for a dishonorable, a common or ordinary use. Similarly, Jehovah has authority to mold individuals as he pleases, and has tolerated wicked ones, “vessels of wrath made fit for destruction,” but this has worked to the benefit of “vessels of mercy,” persons comprising spiritual Israel.—Rom. 9:14-26.