Discovering History Through Pottery-Based Learning

Local Pottery Resources Provide History Education

A part of cultures around the world for thousands of years, pottery is fascinating – both as a functional art form and as an entry point for studying history. Utilizing local resources, children’s literature, and online tools, families can explore art, history, culture, and science through pottery-centric studies!

Pottery has been a part of human civilizations around the world ever since the Neolithic era – which was over 10,000 years ago! Much more than just a means of making dishes, pottery serves as a creative outlet for many artists, and the slow development of the art and technology surrounding pottery speaks volumes to the changes that human civilization has undergone, both long ago and more recently. Additionally, while pottery can be found in countless cultures all around the world, techniques, styles, and uses vary between cultures, and close study of various pieces of pottery can speak to the similarities and differences between cultures near and far.

Local Pottery History

Families can explore the role of pottery in early New England life at Historic Deerfield, home to an extensive ceramics collection (consisting of over 1,000 objects!). An essential part of life at home in the New England of centuries past, studies of the material culture of pottery artifacts can help families to learn about what life was like during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. While some pieces may seem to have an obvious use, it is only under close examination that their true purpose can be revealed!

Pottery Tours

Additional local resources for learning through pottery include local pottery tours, which offer families the opportunity to visit potters’ studios, see their work, learn about the process of creating pottery, and ask questions. In late April, families can see work from many different artists during the annual Asparagus Valley Pottery Trail. Featuring several different western Massachusetts studios, the tour showcases the unique and varied pieces produced by each artist, as well as their fascinating (and sometimes non-traditional) workspaces. In late July, families can further explore the local pottery scene during the Hilltown 6 Pottery Tour, during which the work of several local potters will be shown at many studios in the Hilltowns.

Pottery Classes

Another great way to learn through pottery is by making your own!  There are several pottery studios in western MA where families can sign up for classes, including CyclePottery in Florence. Potter Kathryn Kothe Roszko teaches both kids and adults how to throw on the potters’ wheel! Families can learn how to make their own mugs, bowls, and plates and get a better understanding of how pottery might have been made in the Colonial Era and how modern day potters create both functional and creative pieces.

Online Resources

Further exploration of the life of a potter can be done using a video from the KQED Foundation’s Science on the Spot series. Ben Owen III, featured in the video, is a third-generation potter who utilizes the salt glaze technique. By hearing Ben’s story, families will be able to learn about the purpose, process, and historical roots of salt glazing, and will also learn about the important role that family and local culture have played in the continued use of the technique. Paired with learning activities inspired by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Pottery Quest learning exploration series, a study of Owen’s technique can provide powerful insight into pottery both as an art and a cultural tradition.

Children’s Literature

Finally, exploring pottery through children’s literature provides a means for exploring culture and history. Rins Swentzell’s Children of Clay: A Family of Pueblo Potters spotlights a Tewa Indian family in New Mexico, who tell the story of their family’s and community’s history through a series of clay objects – allowing readers to learn about Tewa history and culture. Laban Carrick Hill’s Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave tells the true story of an enslaved man living in South Carolina during the early 1800’s. Readers learn about 19th-century pottery techniques while also learning about the experience of slavery.

[Photo credit: (cc) Tom Cole]

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