When Was the Potter’s Wheel Invented?

One early example of a mechanical device developed by humans is the potter’s wheel. The first potter’s wheels were slower than the fast wheels developed later.

One of the oldest human-made objects, the potter’s wheel, can be used to reconstruct much of human history. Bell Beaker culture, linear pottery culture, and cord-marked pottery culture are just a few well-known examples of how pottery has been used to identify certain periods in human history. Although the methods used by modern potters and ceramists are very similar to those used thousands of years ago, there have been some significant changes in the history of pottery wheel. Invention of the potter’s wheel also paved the way for the invention of the wheel.

Pottery before the potter’s wheel

The coiling technique.
The coiling technique was largely utilized before the invention of the potter’s wheel. (Image:

The first ceramics were typically coiled by hand before the advent of the pottery wheel. Long strands of clay were molded into threads, then squeezed and rubbed together to make the body. Coil-built ceramics of the ancient world were often constructed on mats or leaves so that the maker could spin the vessel while they added coils of clay.

After that came the slow wheels, also known as tourneys or tournettes. They were the first versions of the potter’s wheel. The use of tournettes has been dated back to 4,500 BC in the Near East. Older designs required a lot of time to spin by hand or foot. However, only a select few potters really made use of them.

The Iranian plateau has yielded a clay slow wheel (tournette) that turned on an animal bone and dates back to about 5,200 and 4,700 BC. There are basalt versions as well. The fast wheel, based on the flywheel concept, was invented sometime in the middle to late 3rd millennium BC.

Where was the potter’s wheel invented?

There is no way of knowing when or where humans first worked with clay or clay-containing dirt, when or where we first fired a piece, or learned to construct things of everyday use out of clay. Experts in archaeology, early history, and art history all believe that the area of Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers (modern-day Iraq) was the birthplace of ceramic arts and crafts about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. Before that, scientists are also certain that clay figurines were molded into worship artifacts and burned. Instead of using the potter’s wheel, the first figurines and the containers were both made by hand.

The potter’s wheel, perhaps the most important innovation in this field, was only invented around 5,250 years ago in Mesopotamia by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Thus, the invention of the pottery wheel falls between 3,000 and 3,500 BC.

Ancient Egyptian with a potter's wheel.
Ancient Egyptian potter from Giza (?), Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5-6, ca. 2544-2260 BC.

During the Early Bronze Age, about 2,400 BC, the potter’s wheel was in widespread use. There is a depiction of a potter’s wheel in an ancient Egyptian picture, which is the earliest known depiction of this tool. In ancient Egypt, making pottery required a high level of talent. Potters had a high social status in ancient societies.

For use in pottery production, the slow, or hand-turned, wheel paved the way for the later invention of the kick wheel, which is rotated using the foot.

By the early 19th century, the potter’s wheel was already a mechanized device. The Chinese are often regarded as the most talented potters throughout history. From the 16th century forward, they molded the separate clay pieces together to create excellent double-gourd vases.

How pottery wheel spread to other countries?

Thus, it is possible to say that the ancient Sumerians invented the potter’s wheel around 3.250 BC. We are unlikely to learn more about the circumstances that led to the invention of the potter’s wheel. It was in Mesopotamia that the potter’s wheel first appeared, but from there it gradually made its way throughout the globe. About 3,000 BC, the pottery wheel became popular in Palestine, and then a little time later, it spread to Egypt. Concurrently, the potter’s wheel expanded to the east, reaching roughly the territory of Pakistan today.

Around 2,000 BC, the potter’s wheel made its way to China for the first time; in the west, it was used in Crete; and by 1,500 BC, it had made its way to Greece. A further 500 years later, the potter’s wheel made its way to Italy, and by the turn of the century, the Romans had spread the pottery wheel to the Rhine and Danube areas, as well as to England, through their conquests. Furthermore, the potter’s wheel made its way from China to Japan during this period.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the potter’s wheel was brought to the Americas for the first time as part of European colonization.

How did the first potter’s wheel work?

the illustration of how the first potter's wheel worked.
The illustration of how the first potter’s wheel worked with the help of a stick. ©Diegortegalonso

The first manually turning ancient pottery wheels required the use of foot kicking to set the wheel in motion. The potter’s wheel could also be spun by inserting a stick into a hole at the top and twisting it, or by manually speeding up the wheel’s rotation. The development of faster wheels facilitated the production of more consistent ceramics by potters. The invention of the potter’s wheel in Mesopotamia around 5250 years ago radically altered the process by which ancient humans could work with clay.

But in many ways, the potter’s wheel has remained unchanged from its first invention and later iterations. Two wheels, one enormous and heavy and the other small and light, are still the defining features of the potter’s wheel. A “flywheel,” the bigger wheel at the end of the axle, keeps the entire mechanism spinning.

The “wheel head,” the tiny disk at the very top of the axle, is the spot where the potter creates their masterpieces. Putting aside the fact that today’s wheels and axles are constructed of contemporary materials, the only difference between several thousand years ago and today is that electric motors power the modern potter’s wheels, saving the potter the time and effort of “pushing” with the foot.

The evolution of the potter’s wheel

One of the oldest wheels ever discovered.
One of the oldest wheels ever discovered.

The kiln, along with the potter’s wheel, has always been the most essential piece of equipment for every ancient and modern ceramist or potter. To prevent further deformation and provide the appropriate hardness for uses such as tableware or storage pots, the produced pieces must be burned. To get this effect, the pottery must be heated to between 1,200- and 1,500-degrees Fahrenheit (650 and 800 degrees Celsius), because the pottery can only expand at this temperature. The chemically bonded water in the clay and ceramic masses can only be evaporated at this temperature. It’s not hard to imagine that potters a few thousand years ago had a hard time achieving such high temperatures.

At first, earth kilns, also known as mailer kilns, were the only option. The fuel—typically wood—and the pieces to be fired were stacked in a trough and then sealed off. In addition to the difficulty of reaching the required high temperatures, the potter also had a hard time controlling the fire duration and process in such kilns.

Much before the invention of the potter’s wheel, the invention of the vertical, brick kiln in the Near East around 4,000 BC was a major technological leap forward. The fireplace was placed below the pieces to be burned, divided by a grate, so that neither the products nor the fuel came into contact with one another during the firing process. As well as facilitating the attainment of the required firing temperatures, this kiln allowed for the regulation of both the fire duration and the firing procedure itself.

The end consequence was higher-quality manufacturing. However, there was still a fundamental drawback to the brick kiln: The kiln suffered huge temperature variations. Because of this, the objects’ colors and quality varied widely based on their kiln placement. It took a very long time for the potters to figure out how to fix this issue.

As a result, the so-called “potter’s kiln” or brick kiln with a descending flame was developed as a viable alternative. The fireplace was moved from under the objects and placed in an insulated spot next to the objects instead. The fireplace’s hot air was blown down over the objects to be burned, then exhausted via a grate and a chimney. This ensured that the kiln’s temperature variations were minimal, leading to more consistent quality and color throughout production runs. This kind of kiln was used to fire pottery for centuries before giving way to more modern options like the electric or gas kiln.

With the development of mass-produced pottery (ceramic pipes, flower pots, and eventually dinnerware, vases, and the like), people sought for techniques to fire constantly with a single kiln, reducing or eliminating the waiting periods between firings. As with many technological advances, the “ring kiln” came first, followed by the “chamber kiln.” They shared a series of interlocking compartments that were warmed by a fireplace on a timed basis.

Tunnel kilns, which have been around longer than chamber kilns, are now the standard in brick factories everywhere. In this setup, dedicated vehicles transport the objects through a continuously firing kiln. Products are assembled outside of the kiln, and those that have been fired are removed. Such a kiln is expensive, but it eliminates energy waste throughout the heating and cooling processes.

How to use a potter’s wheel today

Besides the clay and the wheel, the potter’s hands are the most essential instrument. They are required for the potter to shape the clay on the wheel into the desired form. The first step in creating a straight and even finished product is making sure the clay is “centered” on the wheel. This means the clay ball should rotate freely on the wheel without stopping or swaying. So, the circular component that runs must be “broken up.”

It requires the potter to “draw up” the walls to the required thickness and form around a hole pushed in the center. The breaking-up process creates clay beads that are used to accomplish this lifting; the potter’s ability, experience, and talent come into play here.

This technique is used to create a wide variety of useful and decorative items, including plates, cups, pots, vases, bowls, dishes, ashtrays, and so on. Stamping or casting the clay is necessary if the potter is to create a form that cannot be generated from a sphere. The process of casting is also quite old in pottery. Initially, a prototype of the final product is created. This is used to make a plaster cast.

This imprint is then utilized as a casting mold. Plaster molds, however, wear very rapidly, so fresh molds must be prepared often. The tradition of decorating ceramics dates all the way back to ancient times, and since then, there has been no shortage of creative ways to use color, texture, and pattern. To do this, potters use a wide variety of tools—too many to list individually.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.