At certain points in history, a technology occurs that recreates its society. Pottery was like that – though we know it only from its effect. We have no historical sources for the change, for there was no writing – but we can see, from archeological evidence, the change that occurred in the centuries that followed.
For a great period of time, for thousands and thousands of years, very little changed in human culture. Small shifts in existing technology improved upon techniques or existing tools. Pottery differed from these it that it was the transformation of a material, not merely the reshaping of it. We conjecture that peoples living in deltas where no trees or stones could provide shelter hit upon the idea of using dried clay – and that it was recognized that this clay, baked in the sun, could become as hard as stone. Better than stone, it could be shaped into a variety of shapes from which could be built more complicated structures. Dolls and totems had been made for thousands of years, but bricks were fairly new.
The inclusion of the potter’s wheel, along with a kiln made from bricks, fired the development of pottery pots, jars, oil lamps and hundreds of other implements. Development of the potter’s wheel would lead to the invention of the cog. The kiln would prove the gateway towards smelting metals. Bricks and grain storage in pottery vessels would allow the rise of villages and eventually cities. Closed pots would enable the fermentation of spirits. Since clay was soft, and could be marked upon and then later fired for permanency, marks were made on the soft clay that would become writing. Vessels for carrying goods over long distances would expand trade, particularly overseas, where far off cultures could taste foods that formerly would have soured or rotted. This created a taste of luxuries, which encouraged adventurism and – naturally – a desire to conquer lands beyond one’s immediate sphere.
Rarely is pottery considered in any D&D campaign. It is cheap and hardly considered a treasure. However, bottles for oil and for holy water would always be fashioned from pottery rather than glass – it is more durable for long journeys. Gourds are an alternative – but hardly distributed world-wide and hardly having the same benefit of breaking when desired. Hurled flasks of oil are de rigueur in any campaign.
Is there no other application to the game to be considered? Well first off, if you’re looking at the city map you’ve just finished and which you considered on a parallel with Lankhmar, have a look to see if you’ve included a street of potters – which ought to be there. If your culture is based upon the mid-east, the mediterranean or anywhere subtropical, pottery will be the central possession in most homes,far more common than wood – for plates, cups, pots and so on.
All of that is just window dressing, however. In wider terms, what pottery might elves or dwarves create? What of truly advanced races, such as faerie folk or naga? What properties might their pottery possess? Might it be unbreakable? Might it stretch?
Consider the subterranean culture I made reference to a few posts ago. If you are wondering what central purpose a clan of orcs might serve by existing at the forefront of a cave complex which continues for miles underground, consider that they are operating a kiln. Having access to clay at the bottom of various chambers, and wood gathered from the surface, plus proximity to the surface for venting, our orc clan busily makes pots and other containers for the deeper dwelling ogres and ogre magi, or even the drow or mind flayers living ten or twelve layers below. Imagine the strange looks on your party as they discover the orcs have been making a single piece of art pottery (faience), eight feet in diameter, which is meant to serve as a chamber pot for the titan that resides deep in the mountain. The titan who will not appreciate it if his commissioned piece is in any way damaged.
Could the orcs, after having been decimated, be able to explain that the party really must undertake to finish the task, or else suffer the consequences?
Two other points I wished to make. For anyone who has seen it, the making of pottery, particularly that with walls so thin as to become translucent upon being fired, is a quasi-realistic thing. In a D&D world, the understanding that the world could be altered by hand and mind would be the beginning of technological magic – not the clumsy god-calling that would become clericalism, or druidism, but refashioning the elements themselves. A significant portion of the mage spells in the Player’s Handbook are identified as “alterations” ... these spells would all begin to be researched in and around 5,000 years ago, in prehistory. There is, therefore, a reasonable expectation that many primitive tribes dwelling deep in the heart of dungeons, jungles or deserts may have developed magic along those lines.
Too, the manufacture of totemic pottery items would have been the incorporation of magic – the first magic items, by definition. Where the gentle reader may see the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, I see a relic of untold power, created at a time when the world was new and by hands that knew no rules about what was possible. What might this magic artifact allow – what might it accomplish? Can the tremulous hands of a modern-born character master it?