Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


A NEAT POSTCARD ANNOUNCES the 78th Scripps College Ceramic Annual at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery in Claremont, California. Bless their hearts; the Gallery has me on its mailing since 2016 when Daughter Suz and I enjoyed “On Stage: Japanese Theater Prints and Costumes (Kabuki, Bunraki and Noh).”

Typewriter, 1965, by Robert Arneson. Painted and glazed earthenware. Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. 

The 78th Ceramic Annual, “Handle Carefully: The Power of Words and Clay,” is running from January 21 through April 2, 2023. The Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery is on the campus of Scripts College, just north of 11th Street and Columbia Avenue in Claremont (33 miles east of Los Angeles, about the same distance north of here). Hours are Wednesday–Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.; admission is free. 

In anticipation of a visit, I did my usual Internet sleuthing and came upon a fascinating article titled “Speaking Volumes: Pottery and Word,” by Paul Mathieu. He teaches on the Faculty of Visual and Material Culture at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University. Mathieu’s work has been exhibited worldwide; he has taught ceramics in Montreal, Mexico, and Paris.

Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits gleaned from Mathieu’s article.

Gallo-Roman pottery, 1-3 A.D. This and other images from “Speaking Volumes: Pottery and Word.”

Mathieu observes, “The relationships between ceramics and text, pottery and words, are very old and very new.”.

Mesopotamian Beginnings 8000 B.C. Clay tokens, Mathieu says, “were part of an accounting system used in exchange and commercial transactions. Each little clay ball represented a unit of merchandise, i.e., a sheep, a measure of grain, etc.” 

This earliest tallying, notice, is independent of a number system. Curiously, Mathieu notes that the tokens were called calculis, which evolved into the Latin for “stone” and our modern word “calculus.”

Tallying to Numbers to Words. By 3500 B.C., clay tablets replaced tallying with pictographs representing their value. Mathieu recounts, “By 3000 B.C., these pictographs are simplified into cuneiform, angular signs made by pressing the wedge-shaped edge of a split reed into fresh clay.”

“Thus,” he says, “a pictographic sign for ‘sheep’ is progressively abstracted until it represents a code for ‘sheep,’ then the sound for the word ‘sheep,’ and then simply the phonetic and alphabetical aspects. Through such a process, ceramic materials and technologies are involved in the beginnings of both mathematics and writing.”

Fortuitous Fires. Mathieu describes how these tablets still exist: “Not all of these tablets were baked or fired, only those meant for permanent record, while unfired clay tablets were reused, remoistened, and altered.”

“Most of those that have survived were originally unbaked,” he says. “They were fired when the archive, the ‘library’ where they were kept, burned down and the records were thus buried in the charred remains of the building until their discovery by archeologists.”

Tomorrow in Part 2, Mathieu discusses notoriety in clay, etymology in clay, and the medium’s importance in passing along knowledge to future generations. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 

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