Simanaitis Says

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AN INVITATION TO THE 78th Scripps College Ceramic Annual got me interested in the article “Speaking Volumes: Pottery and Word,” by ceramicist Paul Mathieu. Today in Part 2, Mathieu discusses the roles played by clay in human history (and, perhaps, even in future faux history). 

Notoriety in Clay, Perhaps Misunderstood. Mathieu describes, “In Mesopotamia, the achievements of rulers were inscribed on clay prisms or clay ‘nails,’ often inserted in the structure of buildings. This practice continues to this day in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had his name and accomplishments written on the bricks used for all public buildings constructed under his rule, as well as on all the reconstruction of historic buildings and sites.”

“This,” Mathieu observes, “makes me think of all those bricks made by Robert Arneson with his name stamped on them; he will probably be thought to have been a very important ruler by future archeologists.”

Brick with Cigar and Brick with Nose, 4 x 3 x 9.25 inches, by Robert Arneson, 1975. Image from Modern Art Dealers.

Indeed, I am reminded of The Weans, whimsical misreadings of archeologists in the year 7859.

Writing, Fire, and Glazes. Mathieu notes, “Writing is the most essential discovery of humankind after the still more ancient discovery of fire, and both are closely related to ceramics, both as an art form and in its contribution to the development of civilization and world culture.”

He continues, “If the origin of writing and mathematics is closely related to clay, it is interesting to note that ceramic technology itself became mature at the same time as these developments, with the invention of the wheel, kilns, and the first glazes.”

Etymology in Clay. “Another very interesting use of ceramic and text in Greek antiquity is the ostracon,” Mathieu says: “When a citizen had been deemed unworthy due to an action or behavior, other citizens would pick a pottery shard from the ground, inscribe the name of the offending person on it, and deposit the piece in a special container reserved for that purpose on the public square. At public meetings, the shards were counted, and if a sufficient number of them held the name of an individual, that person was sent into exile. This practice gave us the word ostracize.”

Dead Sea Scrolls. Mathieu recounts a tidbit concerning the 1946–1956 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. “All these records have been preserved for us due to the particular physical properties of ceramics and its potential to contain and preserve not only goods and things, but also time and memory itself. Texts on paper, parchment, or other perishable materials rarely survived.”

Two Dead Sea Scrolls jars at the Jordan Museum, Amman. Image by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) from Wikipedia.

The Dead Sea Scrolls,” Mathieu notes, “were written on parchment, but luckily stored inside pottery jars and sealed under lids, greatly helping in their preservation. Otherwise, bacteria or rodents, weather, or light itself would have long ago digested them.” 

Mathieu’s Summary: “If I wanted to pass along some knowledge, some record, some trace to the future, I would do like the Mesopotamians, and fire it on clay. Ceramics is the memory of humankind.”

I’m confident that the 78th Scripps College Ceramic Annual’s “Handle Carefully: The Power of Words and Clay” will continue my education on this subject. I’m sure thankful that the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery sent me that postcard. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023


  1. Bob Storck
    January 31, 2023

    No less an icon than Mickey Thompson preserved his achievements in fired clay bricks. When he built his race shop, right down the road from you in Long Beach, he had special bricks cast with a bas relief of his LSR record setting Challenger, and placed them strategically around the entry.

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