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African clay pottery history

African clay pottery history

Pottery making in Africa began around 9400 BC and continues to this day.

Tools used to make pottery are anything easily available such as a rock with a somewhat flat bottom, or a stick.
Forming a large clay pot by hand

Pottery is one of the oldest and most widespread of functional arts in Africa.

Creating African clay pots in Africa is unique. Pottery making has a long history in Africa and is one of the oldest functional arts using what is available in natural surroundings. Pottery is clay that is modeled, dried, and fired having practical uses in cooking, storing food, eating, drinking, and as ceremonial vessels. 

In most cases, pottery is made by women. Clay pots are often thick created from clay, sand, and water and used daily in African life. African pottery artists have always used raw materials easily found in the environment. Clay is made by mixing dry clay with water in clay mixer. Clay straight from the ground in Africa is not like the clay you buy from a ceramic clay store or hobby supplier. It contains unwanted materials such as rocks and twigs and needs to be processed to remove before working into pottery. 

A screening removes stones, roots, and other larger particles. Before firing, the pot gets decorated by impressing or carving of the pot, some times the design is religious or sometimes just decorative. 

After decoration, the pots are left in the sun to dry, if in a place where it rain often, the pots are placed in a dry hut or room or near a fire to dry completely over time. Firing temperatures can vary from as low as 1382°F and to as high as 2372 °F for stoneware. 

The firing of the pots begins when a thick layer of burning material is laid on the ground on which the dried pots are laid out, after the first layer of pots a second layer of burning material is laid on top of the pots. If there are many pots the pots are layer out layer upon layer with burning material between them. 

If the pottery is glazed, most time the salt glazing technique is used. This process involves throwing wet salt into the heated fire or kiln while the bisque ware is being fired. Wet salt at high temperatures decomposed to sodium and chlorine. The sodium reacts with the bisque ware to form a glaze.

After drying, the pots are put around a pile of wood, bark or dried animal dung and baked outdoors in a large open fire for many hours.
Pots ready for firing

Clay is found in abundance everywhere on the African continent. Gathering the right type of clay is the first step, African women who have been making pots for generations are able to recognize good clay and other materials for making durable pottery. 

The Ovambo, Kavango, and Caprivi tribes in Namibia, use the hardened clay from termite hills, as it contains the glue saliva from the termites. This termite clay makes pots quite strong and helps with the binding of the clay in forming the pot. 

Pottery has a utilitarian use in cooking, storing food items, eating, drinking, and as ritual vessels. Tools used to make pottery are anything easily available such as a rock with a somewhat flat bottom, or a stick. 

Clay is worked by hand and shaped and fashioned into the desired shape free hand by pinching, coiling, and slabs work. Coiling is the technique of rolling out coils of clay and joining to the pot using slip.

Coiling has been used to shape clay into vessels for many thousands of years in Africa. After drying, the pots are put around a pile of wood, bark or dried animal dung and baked outdoors in a large open fire for many hours. 

In 2007, the Swiss-led team of archaeologists discovered pieces of the oldest African pottery in central Mali, dating back to at least 9,400BC. The discovery was made by Geneva University's Eric Huysecom and his international research team, at Ounjougou near the Unesco-listed Bandiagara cliffs. 

The age of the sediment in which they were found suggests that the six ceramic fragments - discovered between 2002 and 2005 - are at least 11,400 years old. Most ancient ceramics from the Middle East and the central and eastern Sahara regions are 10,000 and between 9-10,000 years old. 

Since the launch of the project in 1997, the team has made numerous discoveries about ancient stone-cutting techniques and tools, and other important findings that shed light on human development in the region. But the unearthing of the ancient fragments of burnt clay is one of the most significant to date.

Huysecom is convinced that pottery was invented in West Africa to enable man to adapt to climate change. "Apart from finding the oldest ceramic in Africa, the interesting thing is that it gives us information about when and under what circumstances man can invent new things, such as pottery," he explained. "And the invention of ceramic is linked to specific environmental conditions – the transformation of the region from a desert into grassland." 

The invention of ceramic also coincided with that of small arrowheads - also discovered by the team – and which were probably used to hunt hares, pheasants and other small game on the grassy plains. To date, East Asia – the triangle between Siberia, China, and Japan – is the only other area where similar pottery and arrowheads have been found which are as old as those in West Africa, explained Huysecom.

Clay is worked by hand and shaped and fashioned into the desired shape free hand by pinching, coiling, and slabs work.
Adding coils to the pot

Since 9400BC pottery is one of the most widespread of functional arts in Africa.

Reference: Huysecom, E., Rasse, M., Lespez, L., Neumann, K., Fahmy, A., Ballouche, A., . . . Soriano, S. (2009). The emergence of pottery in Africa during the tenth millennium cal BC: New evidence from Ounjougou (Mali). Antiquity,
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