Pit Firing Ceramics: A Book Review

Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions

Pit Firing Ceramics - Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions
Pit Firing Ceramics - Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions. Schiffer Books

Dawn Whitehand. 2013. Pit Firing Ceramics: Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions. Arglen Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7643-4172-4. 125 pages, glossary, bibliography, index. Large format hard-backed, 180 full color images.

Making pottery today can be an expensive pursuit: studio kilns can run up to US$4,000 to buy, and don't even ask what your electric bills will be like. But Dawn Whitehand's 2013 book, Pit Firing Ceramics: Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions convincingly illustrates that if you have the space, time and considerable moxie, you have a second choice: build your own backyard pit kiln.

A pit kiln is an ad hoc fire pit dug by hand or built out of bricks which is used to fire ceramics. A variety of different methods have been used over the millennia since the technique was invented, many of which are detailed in Whitehand's book, but in essence, a pit is excavated, filled with pottery vessels, covered with potsherds or sawdust or sand, and then set on fire. Note: Pit kiln construction is more complicated than that, and something dangerous to have in your backyard, so be sure to read further before giving it a shot on my word alone.

Pit Firing Ceramics is an unusual book, and hard to categorize without making it sound dull. It is a survey, I suppose, of historical and current methods of building a pit kiln. But more than that, Pit Firing Ceramics provides us with gobs of details about the wide variety of pit kiln methods used by three dozen modern potters, along with their stories of everything from how and why they built their own pit kiln to what chemicals they use to create colors (MiracleGro?

who knew?) to their philosophy about the art.

Chapter Summary

Whitehand's Chapter 1, "Prehistory and Early History" provides a definition of pit kiln firing, and a summary of archaeological evidence for pit firing around the world. Whitehand also summarizes some of the archaeological studies on kiln technology development and the connection of ceramics to subsistence strategies, including the work of Prudence Rice, Owen Rye, Izumi Shimada, Gary Feinman, Martha Anders, and Christopher Poole among others.

Chapter 2, "Contemporary History" gives us ethnographic data on pit firing, summarizing the results of the work of such scholars as Rye, Jane Perryman and Carla Sinopoli. This chapter also includes stories from contemporary potters who are reinventing ancient pottery types, including Shazieh Gorji in Pakistan and Peter Jones in the United States.

Chapter 3, "How To" begins the substance of the book: how modern pit kiln potters go about their business. The chapter includes how people build or throw their pots and create their colors; and how they burnish or glaze their pots as well as kiln construction. The last two-thirds of this chapter is dedicated to photo essays, showing the different potters constructing or maintaining their kilns.

Ceramic Artists

Chapter 4, "Artist Profiles" includes statements from American, Canadian and Australian ceramicists describing their histories and philosophies, illustrated with multiple full color photographs of their work. Finally, in Chapter 5, "Conclusion", Whitehand summarizes her own philosophy of pit firing, which echoes nearly every other ceramicist interviewed in the book: a blend of controlling the elements and trusting in the randomness of the process.

Pit firing ceramics is, according to Whitehand and her collection of colleagues, a blend of nature and science, materials organic and inorganic, supreme control and utter lack of it.

Bottom Line

Pit Firing Ceramics: Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions is an outgrowth of Whitehand's 2009 PhD thesis, Evoking the sacred: The artist as shaman, from the Arts Academy of the University of Ballarat (now Federation University Australia) in Victoria, Australia. But don't let that scare you: the book version is crammed with advice, philosophies and photographs of dozens of contemporary ceramicists, all of whom build their own kilns. The academic version is focused on the shamanistic and spiritual aspects that she and her colleagues perceive in the practice of the potter. Whitehand's thesis is pretty interesting itself, but definitely not the same document.

While Pit Firing Ceramics doesn't have a lot of archaeological content to it--what there is is confined to the first chapter and its basically summarizing other people's investigations--the book does have a wealth of experience that experimental archaeologists might use, and certainly that anyone planning their own pit kilns could use.

The book is packed with full color images: 180 images in 125 short pages, and the information from the potters is both useful and enlightening about what it takes to be a pit kiln potter: an evocative combination of smoke and substance.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.