… streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground—
the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Gen 2:6,7
This verse in Genesis gives us a picture of God squeezing and moulding clay into the form of a man. It emphasises our humble beginnings and, perhaps, gives some light on the Potter that Jeremiah watched who made a new thing from the pot that was spoiled in his hands?
My recent jottings have been about clay and the thorough preparation needed before it can be used to make a pot. So much of daily life benefits from ceramic (clay) material. Obviously, our cups, saucers and plates, but also electrical insulation, coating on paper, medicines and so much more use clay. Like many things, we can take the presence and usefulness of clay for granted. Where does it come from? How did we discover its uses?
African Pot with markings echoing the pattern of a woven basket
My imagination sees one of those first few humans noticing that rivers did not soak into the ground. The soft material on the river bed prevented this. So he or she took some of this soft material and smeared it over the inside of a basket of woven grasses. Now it could be used to carry water! Perhaps, later, a fire broke out or some baskets lined with clay caught fire. The woven grass was burned up but the clay, somewhat scorched and changed, remained.
firing pots in Mali
Clay is a combination of particles of aluminium silicate, water and some organic material. The particles [Al2SO4] are flat and smooth on both sides. So, like pieces of glass, they sort of stick together and slide over each other when water is added. Hence the plastic nature of wet clay. However, I have mentioned before how clay from the ground needs a good deal of work and preparation before these particles operate smoothly and suitably for making ceramic wares. Clay, found at its source, is usually not able to be used for making pots, though it is employed in other manufacturing. I refer to china clay.
The particles of clay are a result of igneous rock rising to the earth’s surface through volcanic activity. The very hot rock begins to crumble to dust. In Cornwall there are quarries where the china clay is mined. The Eden Project has been built over an old clay quarry.
highly magnified photo of clay particles
This decomposed rock is washed by rain and carried by river. Eventually, where the rivers slow the clay settles. So, we dig up clay from where rivers used to run. The process of erosion, the river journey and the ages settling in, all contribute to making clay ready for use.