Collective humanity owes a great debt of gratitude to the first potter. Before his days the art of boiling, though in one sense very simple and primitive indeed, was in another sense very complex, cumbersome, and lengthy. The unsophisticated savage, having duly speared and killed his antelope, proceeded to light a roaring fire, with flint or drill, by the side of some convenient lake or river in his tropical jungle. Then he dug a big hole in the soft mud close to the water’s edge, and let the water (rather muddy) percolate into it, or sometimes even he plastered over its bottom with puddled clay. After that, he heated some smooth round stones red hot in the fire close by, and drawing them out gingerly between two pieces of stick, dropped them one by one, spluttering and fizzing, into his improvised basin or kettle. This, of course, made the water in the hole boil; and the unsophisticated savage thereupon thrust into it his joint of antelope, repeating the process over and over again until the sodden meat was completely seethed to taste on the outside. If one application was not sufficient, he gnawed off the cooked meat from the surface with his stout teeth, innocent as yet of the dentist’s art, and plunged the underdone core back again, till it exactly suited his not over-delicate or dainty fancy.
To be sure, the primitive savage, unversed as he was in pastes and glazes, in moulds and ornaments, did not pass his life entirely devoid of cups and platters. Coconut shell and calabash rind, horn of ox and skull of enemy, bamboo-joint and capacious rhomb-shell, all alike, no doubt, supplied him with congenial implements for drink or storage. Like Eve in the Miltonic Paradise, there lacked him not fit vessels pure; picking some luscious tropical fruit, the savoury pulp he chewed, and in the rind still as he thirsted scooped the brimming stream. This was satisfactory as far as it went, of course, but it was not pottery. He couldn’t boil his joint for dinner in coco-nut or skull; he had to do it with stone pot-boilers, in a rude kettle of puddled clay.
But at last one day, that inspired barbarian, the first potter, hit by accident upon his grand discovery. He had carried some water in a big calabash—the hard shell of a tropical fruit whose pulpy centre can be easily scooped out—and a happy thought suddenly struck him: why not put the calabash to boil upon the fire with a little clay smeared outside it? The savage is conservative, but he loves to save trouble. He tried the experiment, and it succeeded admirably. The water boiled, and the calabash was not burnt or broken. Our nameless philosopher took the primitive vessel off the fire with a forked branch and looked at it critically with the delighted eyes of a first inventor. A wonderful change had suddenly come over it. He had blundered accidentally upon the art of pottery. For what is this that has happened to the clay? It went in soft, brown, and muddy; it has come out hard, red, and stone-like. The first potter ruminated and wondered. He didn’t fully realise, no doubt, what he had actually done; but he knew he had invented a means by which you could put a calabash upon a fire and keep it there without burning or bursting. That, after all, was at least something.