Feats of clay

Standing before a glass case of rough, beige-colored bowls circa 7000 BC, Oriental Institute museum director Geoff Emberling begins his talk. “Early ceramic vessels were used for cooking grains.” Their introduction, he tells about 20 visitors on a tour of Chicago-area ceramics, correlates with agriculture’s growth and created “a human health disaster.” When people began eating “starchy, sugary grains,” he says, their teeth rotted. Over time, with less use, human teeth became smaller.

Emberling, over six feet tall with dark curly hair, talks and laughs with the group, mostly older women, as he ushers them to the next case—Mesopotamian pottery from 7000–3000 BC. The bowls and sherds here display painted patterns; artisans had begun employing a slow potter’s wheel, creating smoother, thinner vessels and decorating them with concentric circles. Next up: bevel-rimmed bowls, marked by knuckle and thumbprints that, Emberling says, “give you an instant connection to the past.” Found by the thousands, these 3500–2900 BC dishes “were used basically as paper plates” to feed the king’s many workers.

Traveling from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean coast, the group views finds from Anatolia, or ancient Turkey. It’s “a very different kind of pottery,” Emberling notes, “handmade, red-burnished pottery.” Produced from 3000–1000 BC, the vessels feature spouts, handles, and “really beautiful forms.” Around 1000 BC, he says, pointing to pieces more brown than red, the color and shapes changed. A new people had come to the region—the Phrygians, known for King Midas, had migrated from the Balkans.

In the Persian gallery Emberling emphasizes the Iranian tradition. Dating to around 4000 BC, the thin, hand-made bowls and jugs are elaborately painted with abstract images of mountain goats or dancing figures. People had constructed kilns capable of firing at extremely hot temperatures. “The introduction of metallurgy just before this,” Emberling notes, “led to massive deforestation” as humans collected firewood. The land had been filled with trees but “soon got as barren as it is today.”

The OI tour finished, the group sets off to see the Smart Museum’s “Centers and Edges” exhibit, the Geophysical Sciences building’s Ruth Duckworth mural, and the Chicago Cultural Center’s Duckworth exhibit. “I learned so much,” gushes one woman, smiling at Emberling. “Art on the Move” director Joan Arenberg says, “Geoff has set the bar very high for today.”


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Photos (from left to right): Early glazed Mesopotamian pottery; Emberling shows off Iranian pottery; Emberling talks with visitors after the tour.

June 22, 2005