Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past

Making Things from Clay

"Mu kre kee nga chiin? O lelԑԑlԑ pra naa pe jawala teeri na yirԑ pini. Pra ja na choo teeri na chͻԑ faanri."

"Did you know? Our grandmothers were scientists. They made pots from clay."

Today imported metal and plastic vessels dominate kitchen equipment in Banda. But in centuries past people used locally made pottery to meet their daily needs. Among other household uses, durable fired clay pots were used to store food and water, and to cook and serve daily meals. Skilled potters made containers in many shapes and sizes to meet these different needs.

Of all the skilled crafts long practiced in the Banda area, only potting continues as an active craft in the early decades of the 21st century. Potters live and work in several villages on the west side of the Banda hills. Dorbour and Adadiem are Banda villages inhabited by Nafana potters, while neighboring Bondakile is home to Mo potters. All make pottery in a similar style.

The Science of Potting

Learning to make clay pots, Dorbour, 1994

Potting in the region around Banda has been studied by several scholars who have described its technological style, a term that refers to the learned ways through which people do things. For potting, this includes how potters get clay and mix it with other raw materials to make usable potting clay; the techniques they use to form the pots and the styles of pots they make; and the firing techniques that make the pots durable. When first starting out, a potter learns these techniques by apprenticing with a skilled potter. Potters who work and learn together tend to make pots in similar skilled ways, forming what scholars call a community of practice.

Potters are practicing scientists. They must know about the properties of clay and how those differ depending on a clay's source. They must understand how raw materials interact--for example, how adding other materials (called temper) to clay affects the firing process and the finished product. They must also understand the properties of fuels used to fire pots and how the intensity of heat, the flow of oxygen and duration of a firing can affect the finished product. A fire that burns too hot or too quickly can cause the pots to break during firing. How the pots are exposed to air (oxygen) during firing affects their color. Pots exposed to air (an oxidizing atmosphere) may turn red or yellow, while those less exposed to air (a reducing atmosphere) may be darker brown or black. Potters learn about all these things from other skilled practitioners, but they also experiment and improvise.

Clay cooking pots, Ahenkro, 1986
Clay water-cooling pots, Ahenkro, 1986
Clay grinding bowl/men's eating bowl, Dorbour, 1994
Women's clay eating bowls, Ahenkro, 1986

Potters not only need to know about the materials and processes involved in making a pot. They also need to know how a pot’s shape relates to its uses or functions. In other words, they need to know about a pot’s performance features. As examples, a pot used to cook yams needs to be larger than one used to prepare soup. The opening of a cooking pot needs to be large enough to allow stirring, while not being so open that liquid boils off too quickly. A pot for cooking soup needs to withstand the heat of a hearth in the way a storage pot does not. A water storage pot with porous walls and a smaller mouth will cool and conserve water better than one that is non-porous and wide-open at the mouth. A bowl used for grinding needs to have grooves of the right depth to allow for effective processing of vegetables like pepper. And bowls used to serve food may be different sizes depending on the number of people eating from the same bowl. For these reasons and more, potters make pots in different shapes and sizes and use different finishing techniques after firing.

Operational Sequence of Potting

An operational sequence refers to the steps of a skilled practice like potting. In the case of potting, these steps include getting and preparing the clay, molding or forming the pot, applying decoration, firing the pot and finishing its surface.

Preparing the Clay

As a first step in making pots, potters assemble their raw materials and tools. Potting clay must be dug (mined) and carried to the potter’s workplace, which is typically by her home. Potters are skilled at identifying places on the landscape where useable potting clay can be found. They know that clays (fine-grained soil sediments) with the right properties are often found near rivers and other water bodies. These are places where concentrations of clay transported by wind and water are often deposited together with other minerals.

Potters test new clays to see how plastic—and therefore workable—they are, and how well they fire. In other words, they do experiments. They also experiment by adding things to clay (temper) to improve plasticity and firing performance. Tempers can range from plant materials to crushed rock or ground-up pottery. Over time potters in the Banda area have experimented with many different sources of clay and kinds of temper.

Large clay pit west of Bui Village, 1989

Once they have located a good clay source, potters may mine that source for many years. Women are helped in mining clay by their relatives, and the mining process is guided by ritual protocols to ensure that ancestors and land spirits support the women in their work.

After being mined, clay is set aside to dry, sometimes close to the place where it has been dug or in the potter’s workplace. The dried clay is then pounded in a mortar with a pestle until it has an even texture. The clay is sieved, after which temper may be added and water is mixed into the clay. The mixture is then kneaded until it reaches the right consistency for the type of pot being made.

Forming the Pot

Forming the base of a clay pot, Dorbour, 1994

The skilled craftswomen who make pottery in the Banda area today use a forming technique that scholars call direct pull. Beginning with a lump of moist clay, they form a depression. Next, they draw the clay upward and outward to form the pottery vessel’s body and rim. The potter moves around or turns the pot as she forms it. Once she has shaped the pot, she scrapes and thins the pot's wall as she continues to move around or turn the pot. She may add coils of clay to build the pot higher and form the pot’s rim. Once shaped, the body and rim are set aside to dry for some time. When the pot has dried to a "leather hard" state, the potter adds a base or bottom. The pot is then set aside to dry once again.

Potters from Dorbour demonstrated this technique during a June 2019 Banda Heritage Event held at the Banda Cultural Centre in Banda-Ahenkro. Click here to see a video of their demonstration.

Applying Decoration

Potters use a variety of tools to decorate the surface of pots after they have dried and before they are fired. The sharp edge of a metal tool or a piece of calabash may be used to make lines, or the rounded surface of a water-worn pebble or seeds may be used to smooth and burnish the surface. Potters may use a metal bracelet to impress a design, and they use maize cobs to both shape and decorate the surface of jars. Some pots may be decorated with red slip, a thin clay solution to which red pigment (hematite) is added. The wet slip is allowed to dry and may be burnished before the pot is fired.

Firing Pots

Preparing the firewood for firing clay pottery, Dorbour, 1994
Clay food pots ready for firing, Dorbour, 1994
Pottery firing, Bondakile, 1982
Pottery firing, Bondakile, 1982

After drying, and in preparation for firing, the completed pots are stacked together with fuel which can include wood, bark and grass. Once lit, the carefully managed bonfire burns for less than one hour. The heat transforms the leather-hard clay pots into durable fired containers. As the bonfire burns down, the potters and their helpers carefully remove the hot pots from the fire.

Dipping clay pots in bark solution, Bondakile, 1982

While still hot, some types of pots are dipped in a pounded bark solution which seals and darkens their surface. Potters know, however, that pots used to store water should be left to cool without being treated in this way. Other pots, like grinding bowls, may be rolled while still hot from the fire in dry grass or peanut shells. The plant materials carbonize when they come in contact with the hot pot and blacken the pot’s surface.

Potting through Time

Fired clay containers (ceramics or pottery) have long been used in Africa, with some very early examples dating back more than 11,000 years (9400 before the Common Era, or BCE) at Ounjougou sites located near the Bandiagara Escarpment in central Mali. Pottery was an important invention that allowed people to store, carry, heat and cool liquids, foods and other substances in new ways, and it is a technology that has been central to how people have prepared food for many thousands of years. The earliest pottery known (so far) in the Banda area dates to more than 3500 years ago when people associated with what archaeologists call the Kintampo complex lived in the region.

Pottery is one of the most common things that archaeologists find when they dig at old settlement sites. This is because, although fired clay pots break, they do not decompose after being thrown away. By studying broken pieces of pottery (sherds), archaeologists can learn about how people made pottery and how they used it in the past. By studying the chemical and mineral composition of the pottery’s fabric (its clays and tempers), and comparing those to known clay sources, archaeologists can begin to pinpoint where pottery was being made at different times in the past. Archaeologists working in Banda have used techniques known as petrography, Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis and a type of mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) in order to identify the clay sources and tempers used by Banda potters through time.

By studying sites where people have lived over the last 1000 years in Banda, archaeologists have learned a great deal about how and where pottery was made and its changing styles over time. They have learned about how potters experimented with clays and added materials (tempers) over time. Archaeological evidence shows that in some centuries potting was a skilled craft practiced widely across the region. At other times pottery was made by people who specialized in the craft. In centuries when there were specialist potters, skilled craftswomen made many more pots than needed by a single household and they exchanged their finished pots for other goods. Through these exchange networks, pots made in Banda found their way into households in neighboring areas. Archaeologists can study those networks by comparing the chemistry and mineralogy of pots using the techniques mentioned above to pinpoint where pots were made and where they were used.

18th to 20th Centuries

Clay sources and select archaeological sites, Banda Area, Ghana

In recent times potting has been practiced only in villages like Dorbour, Adadiem and Bondakile located to the west of the Banda hills. But differences in the chemistry of soils east and west of the Banda hills help us to learn about changes in where pottery was made in the past.

From the 18th century, and as recently as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women living both west and east of the Banda hills made pots from clay sources close to their villages. We know this because the chemical characteristics of pottery can be matched to the clay from deep pits created by people mining potting clay in the past. The pottery of this time therefore shows a variety of ceramic “fabrics” or clay recipes. Women of the time were making pottery for households in their home villages, but they were also trading pottery across the Banda hills in these centuries. The evidence for this is in the form of finding pottery made west of the hills--characterized by "L-group" clay fabrics (an INAA chemical composition group)--at sites east of the Banda hills, and pottery made from "K2-group" fabrics--from sources east of the hills--at sites to the west.

Click on the links below to see examples of Makala phase pottery shapes and decorations.

16th to 17th Centuries

In earlier centuries, from about 1500 to 1650 CE (16th to mid 17th centuries), clay chemistry suggests that most Banda area pottery was made on the east side of the Banda hills using a distinctive temper. This recipe used crushed iron slag (a by-product of iron smelting or smithing) which potters added to the clay as a tempering agent. This suggests a link between what archaeologists assume was men’s work (iron smelting and smithing) and women’s work (potting). A material produced by one process (slag as a byproduct of metal making) was used as a raw material in another (as temper added to potting clay). This pattern, as well as the standardization in pottery shapes and decorations at this time, implies specialized crafting and trade during these centuries. In other words, some communities relied on potters living and working elsewhere in the area to produce the goods they needed. This was at a time when Banda had strong connections with regions to the north through Niger River trade, at the same time as coastal Atlantic trade connections were forming. In these centuries Banda area potters made pottery in a wide array of shapes and colors. These included small numbers of eye-catching bowls and jars decorated with a glittering mica slip which were traded outside the area and seem likely to have been highly valued. The use of mica slip is an innovation that implies experimentation—through trial and error, potters applied principles of slipping with which they were familiar to mica which was a new medium.

Click on the links below to see examples of Kuulo phase pottery shapes and decorations.

13th to 16th Centuries

In still earlier centuries, from about 1200 to 1500 CE (13th to 16th centuries), some Banda area potters were beginning to experiment with adding slag to potting clay, which is a practice that became common in later times. In this time, as during the 18th and 19th centuries (above), potting was practiced widely across the area. Potters living east and west of the Banda hills made pots of similar form and decoration, but they did so using raw materials that were close at hand. This suggests that they were part of a wider community of practice in which knowledge of techniques and styles was shared across the area. Pottery was traded across the region during these times, but without the same degree of specialization and inter-regional exchange as in the period from about 1500 to 1650 CE.

Archaeologists refer to pottery made during this time as belonging to the Ngre phase (early, middle, late). Later Ngre phase pottery is similar to pottery of the early Kuulo phase (above) in terms of some its shapes and decorations, with the important difference that more early Kuulo phase pottery was slag tempered and probably made east of the Banda hills.

Ngre phase pottery differs in form and decoration by comparison to earlier Volta phase pottery (described below). The form of Ngre phase pottery is often angular, particularly at the shoulder area. When a pot has a sharply angled shoulder, archaeologists refer to this as a carination.

Potters at this time decorated their jars and bowls using a number of different tools. This is the earliest phase during which Banda area potters used carved roulettes to decorate the surface of their pottery. A roulette is a tool that potters rolled across the surface of a pot to impress a design. Complex designs could be created by carving differently angled notches in a stick. When rolled across the pot's surface, these carved roulettes created herringbone and other designs. Archaeologists seldom find these carved roulette tools, but the designs impressed on the surface of a pot provide clues to what the tool must have looked like.

Ngre phase potters also produced eye-catching pots by decorating the surface with red paint or mica slip, or both. Click on the links below to see examples of these forms and decorations of Ngre phase pottery.

Before the 13th Century

Banda area pottery from the centuries before 1200 CE (before the 13th century) differs in technological style from later periods. Potters during this time formed and decorated their pots differently. Rather than the wide range of decorations applied to pots in later times, this earlier pottery was decorated only with dentate or comb impressions (lines or bands of small square depressions) or red-painted designs. These differences in technological style, pottery shape and decoration suggest that this pottery was made by a different community of practice than in later periods. Notably, though, these earlier potters used some of the same clays as did potters in later times. This tells us that they made their pots in the Banda area and did not import them from some other region. Archaeologists refer to pottery made during this time as belonging to the Volta phase. Click on the links below to see examples of Volta phase pottery shapes and decorations.

"Mu kre kee nga chiin?"

Headloading clay pots, Ahenkro, 1986

"Did you know?"

The grandmothers who were skilled in potting over the centuries understood principles that are today studied in school and called chemistry and physics. They applied those principles to make the durable and versatile containers on which people have depended for centuries. Archaeological studies help us to learn about how these potters were inspired by the communities of practice in which they learned their craft, at the same time as they experimented, improvised and innovated, using local materials to make things that were vital to daily life in Banda.

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