There are two sides to the importance of pottery: its place in the history of technological innovation and in culture, and its role in telling us about the past.
As a Technological Innovation and in Culture
Earlier peoples used lightweight, portable skin bags or woven
containers made from inner bark of trees or reeds. Nomadic hunters and
gatherers would not have wanted to carry heavy, breakable pots.
Pottery does not appear to have immediately emerged when people started settling:
In the absence of pottery, other vessels were carved from stone or
moulded from ‘white ware’ (lime plaster).
Source: Ian Shaw & Robert Jameson (eds), A Dictionary of Archaeology
The use of clay did not begin with pottery: clay figures date back as far as 30,000 years ago while the first pots are believed to have been made around 20,000 years ago in China.
Jomon period cooking pot from 15,000 years ago. (Source: The Tokyo Times)
Pottery seems to have been independently invented in North Africa
around 8,000BC and in South America around 5,000BC.
With the development of agriculture, pottery became practical as it
provided storage for foods and water, allowing for more seasonal
versatility in Neolithic cultures and guarding against bad harvests.
In time, new functions for pottery were discovered, a key one being their use in commerce to facilitate the transportation of a wide range of goods. Skilled artists began creating images on pots which were made for decorative rather than practical purposes (though many served as both). As noted in The Importance of Pottery in Human Development, pottery had an important role
...in Ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. Particularly pertinent
was the use of geometric designs and images to depict stories and
events on pottery items.
In short, pottery played a huge role in most societies, in economic terms as well as in culture and society.
Telling us about the Past
Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem sums this up neatly:
Pottery is both the bane and the blessing of the archaeologist’s work.
On the one hand, it is often ubiquitous to the point of
uncontrollability; on the other hand, it is this very trait that makes
it so valuable for archaeological research. Pottery has played a role
in determining just about every facet of archaeological study:
chronology, ethnicity, trade, prestige, building function, social
complexity, level of technology, gender, age, cultic activity,
mortuary beliefs—in short, almost every aspect of human culture and
behavior we can imagine. More than any other artifact, pottery tells
us how ancient people interacted with their environment and with each
A critical role that pottery plays is in helping to date other artefacts discovered in the vicinity of the pot. Even the tiniest shard can allow archaeologists to pin often quite precise dates on other items. Also, the decorations on pots have told us much about the beliefs, lifestyles and lives of the people who bought them and used them. We can see the items people used in their daily lives, what they wore and what they ate. Evidence such as this often provides fresh facts
In our attempt to reconstruct the life of the past, each new
representation of a scene from that life is important either in
verifying our present knowledge or in supplementing it by fresh facts.
Pottery as evidence for musical instruments in Ancient Greece
Pottery as evidence of daily life in Ancient Greece (circa 520-500 BC). This shows women getting water at a 'fountain house'.
In summary, I think it would be fair to say that the critical importance of pottery in archaeology, rather than leading historians to overestimate its importance, has enabled them to understand the importance of other items of past peoples’ lives which have not survived.
Kevin Green, Archaeology: an Introduction
Penelope Allison, The Archaeology of Household Activities
The Importance of Ceramics