An Ancient Lesson in Ceramics

Leptis Magna

by Arnold Howard

Ceramics is one of the world’s oldest arts. I learned how special it is when I was 12 years old living in Tripoli, Libya on the Mediterranean coast.

During our three-year stay in Tripoli, my family visited the ruins of Leptis Magna, an ancient Roman coastal city in the Libyan Desert. The city is like a mirage rising from the past surrounded by vast stretches of emptiness.

I can remember the day as clearly as if it were yesterday. It was a quiet, sunny afternoon when we strolled through the streets of Leptis Magna. We stepped over the ruts that chariots had worn into the cobblestones. We walked past stone pillars, which had collapsed and were scattered across the sand. Statues of Roman athletes and statesmen, once covered with sand, stared vacantly at us with their hollow eyes, just as they had long ago.

From a hill, I looked past the great field of ruined, silent buildings, to the dark blue Mediterranean in the distance. We walked through the ruins and made our way to the beach.

Scattered on the sandy beach were half-inch square stone tiles and broken pieces of pottery. Bits of pottery jutted from the sand where the waves gently washed over them.

I recognized the stone tile squares from the beach near my house, about half a day’s drive from Leptis Magna. The tiles came in black or white stone. I had collected a handful of the tiles that had washed up on the beach in the mornings. Here at Leptis Magna they were scattered about plentifully, a remnant of mosaic flooring from the Roman buildings.

Among the shards of cups and pots, I found a ceramic bowl about 3″ in diameter and 2″ high, made of reddish-brown clay. It was unglazed and, except for a few small chips on the rim and around the base, in perfect condition. I picked it up. Impressed into the base was a handprint. Inside the bowl were impressions of several fingerprints. The fine lines showed clearly. That the delicate impression of a human hand remained after two thousand years astonished me. I visualized an ancient potter holding the bowl in his palm while the clay was still wet. Cupping the bowl in my hands brought history to life.

Over forty years have passed since that visit to Leptis Magna. Thinking of it reminds me of how special, even magical, ceramics is. The heat of an ancient kiln had given that little bowl the strength to survive the centuries, buried in the desert. And centuries from now, ceramic pieces will be among the few relics of our civilization. Plastic, metal, and wood will have disintegrated.

Project Ideas for Ceramics Teachers

Tell your students that by making ceramics, they are continuing a tradition thousands of years old. By teaching ceramics, you have the opportunity to bring history to life for your students.

  • Bring photos of ancient pottery to class. Have your students make pots using the styles of ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt.
  • Schedule your ancient pottery class to coincide with the study of ancient Rome, Greece, or Egypt in World History class. World History teachers could help with your research into ancient pottery styles.
  • Have students tell a story by impressing images into the leather-hard clay.
  • Research ancient glaze formulas, and have your students replicate those glazes using a small test kiln.
  • Have your school’s Latin club translate student poetry. Decorate Roman-style pots with Latin.
  • Take your art class on a field trip to a museum that displays ancient pottery.
  • Make a pottery time capsule. Bury students’ work where it might be found far into the future.

As a boy wandering through Roman ruins, I learned to appreciate ceramics. Your students can learn the same appreciation right in your own school. More important than discovering rare pieces is for your students to make ceramics themselves.

Factory Tour

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