A Must Watch: 'The Great Pottery Throw Down'

By Carlotta Gardner, Associate Editor for Archaeological Ceramics

I am sure many of the UK based members of SAS already know about this programme, but I expect many international members do not… I recommend you look it up! As well as its excellent entertainment value, the show is full of useful information about different potting techniques, decoration methods, materials, and is also a potential source of teaching material. 

The Great Pottery Throw Down follows the same format as the Great British Bake off and Sewing Bee: a group of 10 amateur potters (bakers or sewers) compete each week in a series of challenges, with one eliminated at the end of each show until the winner is revealed in the final episode. The Throw Down’s 4th series has just finished and I think it might be the best so far. 

Why am I writing about this programme for the SAS bulletin and why should you spend your valuable time watching a programme like this? Let me tell you…

I learnt A LOT (and it is great fun too)! 

Series 4 was especially rich in historic and archaeological references from across the globe. From the production of handmade bricks; the Obvara raku technique; handmade bone china flowers typical of mid 20th century Britain; all the way to traditional hand coiled, slip decorated Acoma pottery - this series had it all!

Of these challenges the ‘Naked Raku’ was the most interesting to me. Having just attended the excellent Arch√§ometrie Kolleg workshop on Ancient ceramic and their pigments where we learnt and discussed about carbon black decoration—Raku is an example of this—it was particularly thought-provoking to see this technique in practice (Figure 1)

Pueblo, Acoma. Water Jar, 1868-1900. Clay, pigment. Brooklyn Museum, Riggs Pueblo Pottery Fund, 02.257.2467 (Wiki license).
Figure 1. Pueblo, Acoma. Water Jar, 1868-1900. Clay, pigment. Brooklyn Museum, Riggs Pueblo Pottery Fund, 02.257.2467(Wiki license).

The competitors threw two bulbous pots each, fired them, and then spent hours applying a very fine slip in layers, burnishing each one until a high polish was achieved (a multitude of different tools were used by each potter to achieve this). These pots were then subjected to raku firing. Most potters used a variety of different materials to achieve their desired decoration, for example feathers, hair, and straw. One potter however, decided to use the Obvara method. This is where the hot pot is partially, or entirely, submerged in a mixture of fermented flour, yeast and water, and then quickly removed and submerged in cold water (Figure 2). The danger of thermal shock alone makes this hold-your-breath viewing, but the process is also intriguing. I was left with many questions and decided to do a little research.

Figure 2.The 'Obvara' process

The ‘Obvara’ technique is thought to originate in the Balkan region and/or Russia. The technique is named differently in each country but often translates to hardened or burnt pot, fermented ceramic, or yeast/sourdough pottery. Little archaeological or scientific research appears to have been undertaken on this pottery, however more recently ceramic artists, like Janet Chassier, have begun to explore the origins with an aim of using this technique themselves. The traditional method was used to ‘seal’ relatively low-fired, porous pottery. Dipping the bisque fired pottery into a fermented mixture, which appears to have no set ‘recipe’ and could include anything from cabbage through to milk, results in beautiful cloud like decoration. Some sources have indicated that in folk stories the patterns often reveal eyes that ward off evil spirits and also serve to protect the contents of the pottery. It is thought Obvara pottery has been produced in these regions for many centuries, up until glazed ceramics were mass produced and accessible. Little scientific explanation is offered for any aspect of this process… perhaps an experimental project could be set up one day to explore this method more thoroughly!

The Throw Down has certainly introduced me to a range of different potting techniques and traditions that I was unaware of. It also showed how communities of practice (or a ‘clay-family’ as the competitors describe themselves) develop and perform, with each potter learning and taking influence from one another and assuming different roles within the group. It was fascinating to observe how each potter approached the various challenges they were given based on their own personal experience and existing skill set. Whilst the failed challenges were heart-breaking to the competitors, they were a useful reminder that ceramic objects are not as simple to produce as we sometimes think. It is easy to sit in a lab and analyse a sample of broken pottery found during archaeological excavation and forget about the skill and knowledge of materials that must have been required to make them. For me, this show reminds and re-enforces why it is so important to consider the craftspeople who made the objects we study today.

Many of the episodes from the first 3 series are now on YouTube and series 4 can be found on All4. Other similar series which might be of interest include one on glass blowing (‘Blown Away’) and jewellery making (‘All That Glitters’).