Clay was plentiful in Papua New Guinea where we lived, but it was not the kind for making pottery. It was red and sticky, on the trails, and when it rained hiking was difficult. Once wet clay got on your shoes, it stuck there like chewing gum and, if it hardened, you needed a screwdriver or chisel to loosen it. No way to throw a beautiful pot out of that clay.
There is also a distinction between raw clay and terracotta, which is clay that is molded and fired. But, in either case, there are no toxic materials (such as lead) in the clay and any impurities are the result of additives and glazes. You can drink out of a clay cup as long as it is lead-free.
I read that “the earliest pottery vessels found anywhere in the world, dating to 20,000 to 19,000 years before the present, was found at Xianrendong Cave in the Jiangxi province of China.” That is a long time to be making pottery, and then hiding it in a cave. But the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were first discovered in 1946, were in jars with tight-fitting lids and hidden in caves. They date from the third century BC to the first century and most were written in Hebrew and on parchment.
Pots are dated by the radiocarbon method because they have organic materials in them, and the isotope of Cabon-14 has a half-life of 5730 years. An area in Iran is said to be the pottery capital of the world but China exports the most pottery goods. However, another website claims that the earliest pots were made by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and were used for cooking and storage.
Pottery work in the Pacific spread out far across many islands, periods, and cultures and pots can be traced to ancient peoples that 3,500 years ago had migrations throughout Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, and Polynesian.
A number of native American tribes, such as the Cherokee, Iroquois, Cheyenne, and Shoshone have made clay pots, each with distinctive characteristics.
The Kewa people in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, with whom we lived for several years, used different kinds and colors of clay for body decorations. A type of reddish clay was used when decorating the body for dances and a white clay on someone would generally signal that they were in mourning. People also decorated themselves with yellow clay and sometimes clays were mixed to provide other shades of color.
We read in 2 Samuel 17.28 that the people had articles of pottery and in Job that he took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself to relieve his suffering (Job 2.8). The smashing of pottery is often used as an image of hopelessness and revenge (Psalm 2.9; Isaiah 30.24; Revelation 2.27). Paul compares us to the clay out of which God makes different kinds of pottery for different uses (Romans 9.21).
The writer of Isaiah (in 64.8) acknowledges that “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Sometimes, as the writer of Isaiah reminds us “You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”? Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”? (29.16)
This may remind us of a well-known hymn by Adelaide Pollard (1907):
Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way! Thou art the Potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still. Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way! Search me and try me, Master, today! Whiter than snow, Lord, wash me just now, As in Thy presence humbly I bow. Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way! Wounded and weary, help me, I pray! Power, all power, surely is Thine! Touch me and heal me, Savior divine. Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way! Hold o'er my being absolute sway! Fill with Thy Spirit till all shall see Christ only, always, living in me.
The image of God as a potter and we as clay is indeed a powerful one. Of course, the potter always has the final say of what the pot will look like. The potter squeezes or throws the clay into the desired shape and then fires it so that it is hardened and will hold up in normal use. God is doing the same with us so that we can be useful vessels, not shattered and broken.