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Primeval Fermenting in Ancient Ceramics and Us

Posted July 27, 2018

I’m very pleased to introduce a series of posts, in collaboration with Erik Painter, Ricardo Hasse and myself, which is a series of posts, which highlight the ancient history of ceramics and fermentation.

Recent scholarship has uncovered a much older tradition of fermentation than we had previously imagined. Though I had been aware of some of this history, it has been made more tangible and real for me since my fellow potter and collaborator, Erik Painter, dug into the research and found some fascinating studies on the incredibly long history of humans and fermenting. Fermentation as a food preparation and preservation technique is older even than civilization – the practice goes back more than 9000 years. We are delighted to share with you what we’ve been learning.

As we think about and appreciate the long relationship we humans have with ceramics and fermentation, we can also understand ourselves as part of a connected dynamic – extending through us from a dim past into the future. Modernity, postmodernity, and technical achievement have brought many challenges to our sense of connection. Thoughtful and intentional engagement with our shared past, and with shared experiences, can help us to reduce influences that might isolate and separate us.

Evidence of rice-based fermented beverage has been found from the 9,000-y-old Jiahu site in China.

In this spirit, we’ll be bringing you some amazing stories from the history of ceramics and fermentation. We’ll talk about fermented beverages in ancient China, 7000 year-old cheese in what is now Poland, ancient African yogurt, fermented residue in 9000 year-old pottery shards, fermented cacao in Mesoamerica, and more. We’ll talk about the ceramic techniques – shaping, glazing and firing – that allowed our ancestors to develop fermented cuisine. Throughout we’ll highlight the connections made available to us by these stories – connections between the past and present, between form and function, between ceramics and fermentation, between art and daily life – and most importantly, between one another.

Fermented chocolate beverage was found in pottery vessels 1100 BCE at the Ulúa Valley in northern Honduras.

Although it is interesting and edifying to study the past, there are practical and present reasons for gaining an awareness of the long relationship between humans and fermentation. Our bodies are, in a way, conservative. While our ideas and our techniques have rapidly evolved, especially in the last few hundred years, our bodies have stayed much the same. Because of this it is important to respect and to work with our bodies’ ecosystem. Understanding the long relationship, between our own biochemistry and the unique mechanism of fermented food and drink, can help us make healthy choices, in particular the choice to include fermented food and drink as an alternative to highly processed products.

The new fermenting vessel (crock) design, which I call the Lighthouse, glazed with ash glaze Seashell and fired in reduction high-temperature.