‘A cynic once described archaeology as ‘the study’ of second hand crockery’. This joke definition underlines two important points. First, the ancient art we have available to us today does not display a remarkably high proportion of pottery vessels. This is partly due to the fact that fired clay is so indestructible. Even when smashed to pieces, the vessels survive as pottery shreds that are easy to analyze. It is also partly due to the fact that most tomb goods were required two special functions: that they had to be ‘special’ to honour the dead by their high quality, and they had to contain sustenance for the long journey to the other world. In other words there was a social pressure on mourners, when placing objects inside a tomb, to make their offerings both beautiful and at the same time capable of containing food or drink. This pressure led inevitably to a preponderance of carefully fashioned vessels, and it elevated ceramics into a much more dominant art form that it is today.
Second, the use of the world ‘crockery’ helps to emphasize the great difference between the ancient pottery vessels and the modern ones we use today. To the prehistoric potter, each vessel was like a hollow piece of sculpture, to be lovingly and individually shaped and decorated. As a result most of the ancient vessels that have come down to us can be treated as significant works of art.
It is worth asking who made the vessels and under what circumstances. Who were these early artists? Here it is necessary to make a distinction between handmade and wheelmade vessels. We know from anthropological studies of modern tribal communities that handmade pottery is typically produced by women and wheelmade pottery by men. It seems as if the process of handmaking pottery is somehow more akin to such activities as making and baking bread or decorating clothing, which are carried out by females. The social role of the pottery artist in early, pre wheel communities is essentially feminine. It is likely that these potters were village specialists respected for the skills, who provided their services at two levels. Ordinary, everyday pottery would be produced rather simple for house use, and in addition there would be ‘special pieces’ made for important funerals. Many of the tomb goods are clearly not intended for everyday use. They have clearly been designed to honour the dead by their inventiveness, complexity and ornateness. How surprised they would be, to find their works of art, carefully restored, sitting in glass cases, thousands of years later, when all they had intended was to ptovide something almost as ephemeral as wreath of flowers on a modern grave.
The Early Bronze Age, with it’s cultural affluence led to the provision of huge quantities of grave goods to accompany the corpse and pottery production flourished. Painstakingly rock cut tombs were hewn for the dead, with cave like chambers approached by an entrance passage, and sealed by a large stone slab. From these grave goods we have by now a fairly clear picture of the major pottery sequences as the Bronze Age Moves through its various phases. The Early Bronze Age, once thought to have lasted for only two centuries, is now estimated to have stretched over almost a whole millennium B.C.. It is dominated by polished ware pottery, usually Red polished, but with many variants.’
Desmond Morris, author of “The Art of Ancient Cyprus”
Early Bronze Age Pottery Vessels from Cyprus, c. 2700 – 1900 B.C.