The Ethno-archaeological Comparison of ceramic Styles in Village T’kul of Eritrea

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Human past behavior can be better understood through methodologies developed in the field of archaeology and ethnography.

This application involves the study of material culture of past societies in daily use. The field of Culture reflects the difference between the norms, beliefs, customs, practices and other related intellectual activities of a society through different aspects. The material culture in a broader sense includes lithics, iron tools, copper items, bronze utensils, ceramics as well as other types of tools that have connection with past societies.

Among many archaeological remains, ceramics is one of the most abundantly found remains in archaeological sites. Ceramics are known to have been in use from the Neolithic times, which is around 12,000 years ago. Pottery manufacturing began with the advent of sedentary way of life and food production. The culture of pottery production and their manufacturing systems have been transferred across generations in a form of family inheritance and/or community indigenous knowledge (IK) preservation and continuity. As a result, it is important for archeologists to learn some sort of relations between the past and present societies living at the same environment in order to reconstruct and understand the past human behavior and lifestyles.

In Eritrea, several archaeological sites are known that have ample collection of material culture, mainly ceramics. Here, the ceramics from the T’Kul area will be considered for the purpose of ethnographic comparison with archaeological collections. The pottery production of the contemporary indigenous society from T’kul has an interesting phenomenon for the purpose of ethno-archeological research concerning the transfer of indigenous knowledge and production techniques in some traditional pottery production sites.

The village of T’kul is located near the city of Dekemhare, 40 kilometers south of Asmara. The villagers’ economic life is based on agriculture (subsistence farming) and animal herding to some extent. The potters in T’kul are women. The making of pots is extremely laborious and includes digging for the clay, carrying the clay, making the vessels and marketing them. Potters who make high quality pots earn as much as 100 Nakfa per week. In the dry season, when pots can be dried in the sun, the mean income of potters is about 200 Nakfa per week, with some people earning as much as 500 Nakfa per week. T’kul potters make different types of vessels.

The ethno-archaeological comparison is based on the parameters of function, size, and shape of the objects. Here we will look at the similarity and difference between the archeological and ethnographic ceramic types. The objects representing the archaeological collection are collected from households in T’kul. In general, the archeological vessels are big in size except Sarma, and compared with the ethnographic collection, the archaeological vessels are small in number and variety. Archaeological objects include several types of Etr’o  classified based on shape, size and function and others include Geni; archaeological Sarma; and Decho. The ethnographic collections are represented by ethnographic Sarma, Tina, Jebena, Tsahli, Mobokoria, nai-etan, Fernelo, serving vessels, Nai-riguo, Nai-tesmi. The ethnographic collection has six types while the archeological collection has only three. The archeological vessels have similar shapes, spherical body, with long or short neck and vertical or horizontal handle. But the ethnographic collections vary in shape. They include cylindrical, conical upside down like (fernelo), spherical (jebena), neck less (nai-riguo), and others.

Archeological Geni’e and Etr’o typology are very big in size compared to the ethnographic vessels. The shapes of archeological and ethnographic vessels is the same in their spherical body, short neck, and handle position in between neck and body. The color is black with incision decoration related with A4, A6 vessel of etro and A8 vessel genie.

The archeological vessels are mostly used as storage for Siw’a and water, or for kneading and steaming siwa bread. But the ethnographic objects are different in function, with each ceramic type having its own specific function. For example, milk-vessel, nai-tesmi for preparing butter, nai-riguo for churning yogurt, tina as storage for yogurt. All the ethnographic vessels are made for commercial purposes and are in high demand by the local people of zoba-Debub and zoba-Maekel.

Archeological sarma and ethnographic sarma have different functions. These days Sarma is used as decoration in urban areas, but in villages it is still used in serving siwa. Jebena is a vessel that has not changed. It can be uses for decoration, but its actual function of making coffee still exists in almost every household in Eritrea. And Tsahli like jebena has retained its original shape although rarely it is used for decoration at weddings and other ceremonies.

The similarity of the archaeological and ethnographic vessels is mainly seen in their color. Both are black ware (kiln fired) and yellowish ware (open firing). The similarity in color between the archaeological and ethnographic objects might be an indication of technological continuity or the continuity of other features that determine ceramic manufacture. Another similarity is seen in the decoration style and motif, which is dominated by appliqué decoration and incision. Appliqué decoration is a technique applied, when the clay is wet, by joining formed clay and cutting forms on the surface. Incision, also applied on the wet clay, is simply making lines in the form of diagonal parallel lines, cross, upside down triangle, geometric, net, cross, parallel line, and floral decoration. Incision is the most frequently applied decoration type in contemporary pottery manufacture in the village.

The number of ceramic makers or potters in T’kul has been dwindling and this affects ceramic production. The culture of ceramic production, which goes back centuries in the history of a people, says a lot about the people who make them. Therefore, as a cultural heritage it ought to be preserved and passed onto the next generation.