Traditional Pottery Production in Eritrea

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Pottery is humanly prepared object which includes several household materials made from clay and hardened by fire for durability.

The term refers to objects made of clay that have been designed into a desired shape, dried, and either fired or baked to fix their form. Due to its abundance and durability, pottery is one of the most common types of items found by archaeologists during excavations, and it has the potential of providing valuable information about the human past. Because fired clay is remarkably resistant to weathering, clay artifacts are among the oldest reminders of human technology. The pottery of all periods reflects religious and aesthetic traditions and reveals the course of trade diplomacy. Pottery has a very crucial task in our daily lives which is why everyone needs to know something about it. Pottery is manufactured in various ways throughout the world ranging from simple household hand production to modern factory production, which differ in style and function. Regardless of their importance and difference, all pottery follows the same stage of production, starting from raw material acquisition (clay) to the last stage of firing. These stages are applicable to traditional and modern pottery making.

Until the 1990s, most archeologists and anthropologists believed that pottery was first made during the period of Neolithic art (8,000-2,500 BCE). However, the earliest recorded evidence of clay usage dates back to the Late Palaeolithic period. The oldest evidence of pottery manufacture has been found at an archaeological site known as Odai Yamamoto, Japan, where fragments from a vessel have been dated to about 16,500-14,920 years ago. Non-agricultural Jomon peoples of Japan were producing clay pots used for food preparation that were elaborately decorated by about 13,000 years ago. The oldest known pottery in Africa comes from Sub- Saharan Africa. In 2007, Swiss archeologists found ceramic shreds at Ounjougou, Central Mali, dating back to at least 9500 BCE.

Archaeological data clearly shows that Eritrea has a long history of pottery making culture. The excavated potsherds from Sembel and Maichehot sites , w h i c h are dated about 2800 BC can tell that pottery was in use in prehistoric times for cooking, storing and for containing water. In Eritrea there are several traditional pottery factories. These factories are the main suppliers of pottery products in the country. Even though these traditional pottery factories are located in different parts of the country, most of the pottery products manufactured have acquired some similarities and difference due to their cultural background and the technology used.

There have been a variety of techniques of pottery production in Eritrea. One of the techniques has to do with firing. Generally, there are two ways of firing. The first one refers to an open firing modeling system and the second to the closed firing modeling System. Open firing modeling system seems to be the earliest stage of pottery production in Eritrea. These open firing techniques have increasingly led to later production techniques.

Normally, clay is obtained from nearby areas. Then initially clay is mixed with water and other materials such as animal dung, sand etc. It is kept for few days in order to give the mixture sufficient time to be completely mixed. In the modeling method, first a frame is prepared and then the moistened clay ready for the manufacturing is applied over the surface of the frame which the potters place in a shade. When it is partially dried the pot maker rubs both internal and external surfaces of the pot by using marble stone to make the surface shiny; then it is exposed to the sun for a final drying.

The first step of pottery production using a closed firing method is based on the acquisition of clay from a quarry site. The clay is then mixed with water and kneaded with a stick or pressed by hand and foot until it becomes delicate in order to attain the desired elasticity and permeability. When the clay is prepared well, the pot maker shapes the form of the desired object, for instance, coffee pot (jebena), water container (etro), traditional stove (mogogo) and traditional tool for making stews (tsahli) using molding techniques. When the process of forming the vessel is finished the object is decorated. There have been different techniques of decoration used by pottery producers which includes incision, applique and painting. Incision is marking using sharp materials such as metal, pointed wood, bone and finger. Applique technique refers to the technique of applying certain clay over the finished pot. On the other hand painting technique is dyeing the pot with color. Incision and applique are the predominant types of decorations used by traditional pottery producers. The decoration consists of different geometrical shapes including parallel lines and reflects their respective tradition. After finishing decoration the object is dried in the sun for some days. Drying the pot helps to evaporate the water. During the process of drying, pots need moderate temperature. It is very important to put the pots under a shade instead of exposing them to extreme cold temperature and direct sunlight in order to avoid cracking.

Firing is the process of drying a pot to a biscuit form. Every pottery has to go through such method and this is done by digging a shallow hole and putting some biomass (animal dung and firewood). After putting the pots in the hole, the mouth of the pot is closed before the fire is set. For the production of red colored pots they use an oxidation process whereas reduction process is applied to produce black pots. This kind of firing is a new development as compared to the previous method and is termed as closed firing.

In terms of strength, pots made by closed firing are harder than pots made by open firing. The main reason is that in the closed firing air cannot enter the pot and this makes the pot very hard. In contrast with the open firing technique the pots are exposed to air. The pots produced serve different purposes. Some of the pots are used in the kitchen for cooking while others are used for making coffee and some are put on display for their aesthetic value.

The manufacturing of pottery is profitable, and the main reason is that pot makers don’t spend money on the raw materials, and their products usually have high demand. The fragile nature of pottery is also another economic advantage to the pot makers. A great majority of pot makers are women.

Pottery can be analyzed based on several features. W e can look into its shape, surface , the colours, drawing patterns, and decorative styles. All these elements have been studied in detail for every particular culture and time, and it can help us to understand the cultural and artistic development of a society and may also enable specialists to identify pottery fragments when they are found in places far away from their production sites, again reflecting trade activity and exchange networks. On the other hand, the study of pottery can help in providing an insight into past cultures. Pottery is durable and often at least fragments survive long after artifacts made from less-durable materials have decayed beyond recognition . Combined with other evidence, the study of pottery artifacts is helpful in the development of theories related to the organization, economic condition and the cultural development of the societies that produced or acquired pottery.

The technique of pottery making has been known almost everywhere in Eritrea. But nowadays the technique is confined to specific areas of the country. The introduction of industrial goods such as plastic, aluminum and iron have almost replaced the long surviving pottery production tradition.