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Eastern and Southern African Art: Pottery Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 12th, 2021


It is considered that the earliest pottery productions were hand-built and fired in fires. Firing times were short but the peak temperatures attained in the fire could be high, perhaps up to 900 degrees Celsius, and were attained very quickly. Clays tempered with sand, gravel, crushed shell, or crushed pottery were often used to make bonfire-fired ceramics, as they granted an open body texture that allows water and other impulsive components of the clay to get away freely. The commoner particles in the clay also acted to contain reduction within the bodies of the wares for the period of cooling, which was carried out gradually to reduce the risk of thermal stress and cracking. In the main, early bonfire-fired wares were made with curved bottoms, to avoid sharp angles that might be vulnerable to splintering. The earliest deliberately built ovens were pit-ovens or trench-kilns; holes dug in the ground and covered with fuel. Holes in the ground provided insulation and resulted in better control over firing. It appears that pottery was independently developed in North Africa during the tenth millennium BC.

In the highland town of Lushoto, in the Usambara Mountains of northeastern Tanzania, a market day rarely passes without local potters parading into town carrying loads of stoneware on their heads. Although those who are not regular visitors to the weekly markets in the district might claim that one pot looks just like another, to the insider each vessel bears the unique impression of its maker.


The research of pottery and shards of pottery have contributed extremely to the study of all stages of Eastern African history. Ancient Africans resorted to pottery in much the similar way we use contemporary kitchen jugs, and by investigating the pottery material, equipment, and form of earliest pottery, archaeologists have been capable to date sites in Africa where there is little other confirmation. Of course, contemporary radiocarbon dating has been of considerable precious for setting up complete dates, but early scientists such as Flinders Petrie appeared capable to expand chronological dates for predynastic stages mainly based on pot splinters.

The pottery of Africa is often of amazingly high quality. The pottery of the period presented by this pot was made without the use of a potter’s wheel, and it was regularly the woman who turned out the pottery. These beautiful pieces were polished to a shiny finish and fired leaving a black upper section and lower, deep red section. They were fired in either open bonfires or very primitive ovens, but stay some of the most astounding pottery ever created in Eastern Africa. Unguided paintings were supplementary to the pottery portraying animals, models, boats, and human shapes.

As for the presented pot, it is necessary to mention, that it comprises all the mentioned above features. It is perfectly made and pictured. This style of hand-made decoration depicts the belonging of this pot to some poor people, who made the pot or exchanged it for products of harvesting. The lines on the pot depict, that it belonged to, or was made by someone laconic, living somewhere in the hill region, as the lines under the rim are claimed to picture the hills. It can be seen that it has been manufactured without using the potter’s wheel. Most probably it was used for storing beer, but it also could be used for other liquids, such as water, milk, honey, etc.

This type of pottery within Tanzania experienced some influence from other eastern regions, in pottery painting and manufacturing styles, motifs and the first pot seals appeared in Africa exactly under the influence of the neighboring civilizations. Pot seals have symbols that are known in Mesopotamia from the Late Uruk and Jamdat Nasr epochs as well as Mesopotamian settlement sites in Syria.

Today, as in the past, ceramic production is closely associated with cosmologies of human genesis in northeastern Tanzania. Pottery often serves as a symbol for the beginning of something, the boat from which life starts. According to Pare and Shambaa creation myths, Kiumbe, whose name is obtained from the verb kuumba (‘to create, to form, to mold pottery’), created (azaumba) human life from clay (udongo) in the same manner that the potter molds her pots. Kiumbe is regarded as the Creator God who provides for all their needs. The predecessors are seen as commissioners of Kiumbe, who can act as mediators between the supernatural world and the world of the living. With the assistance of established healers and spiritualists, sacred earthenware vessels therefore can symbolize ancestor spirits or control their transformative influences.

Felix Chami addressed the question of the time gap between Kwale ware (EIW) and the Triangular Incised/Tana (LIW) and the instructive link between the two customs, in his dissertation in 1994. He found common characteristics in the pottery beautification in the East African region which suggests a transitional phase in the 4th century A.D. The pottery was found in excavations on the coast and hinterland close to Bagamoyo in Tanzania. The sites are Mpiji, Changwehela, Kaole located at the coast south of Bagamoyo within 27 km (north of Dar es Salaam), and the two internal places Kiwangwa and Masuguru within 55 km westwards. A result of his studies is the theory that Kwale ware expanded eastwards from western Tanzania, stayed in the central part of Tanzania between the rivers Wami in the north (opposite Zanzibar) and the Rufiji in the south (opposite Mafia and a little north of Kilwa). The following multiply was then northwards and southwards. Kwale ware (EIW)-sites have been unearthed in the area and dated to just after the birth of Christ.


The discovery of similar sequences (approx. 120 km apart) of pottery in the Nguru Hills, as Soper found in the South Pare Hills and the Usambara Mountains, stands for a major infiltration in the search for links between the coastal societies and the inner lands. The interrelations among people in the flat terrains of Tanzania are also getting clearer. It connects well both to Soper’s and Chami’s work. Chami found that the incised triangle design is more frequent in the site away from the coast (Masuguru 55 km from the shore). The red slipped and graphite decoration is not found in these sites. These sites are located on the mainland, three of them on the shore and two in the neighborhood. A conclusion in Chami’s study was also that triangle is an attribute that originates from the Early Iron Working pottery (Kwale type) (Chami 1994).


  1. Berzock, Kathleen Bickford, and Barbara E. Frank. “Ceramic Arts in Africa.” African Arts 40.1 (2007): 10
  2. Buchert, Lene. Education in the Development of Tanzania, 1919-90. London: James Currey, 1994.
  3. Schmidt, Peter R., and Jonathan R. Walz. “Re-representing African Pasts through Historical Archaeology.” American Antiquity 72.1 (2007): 53
  4. Thompson, Barbara. “Namsifueli Nyeki: A Tanzanian Potter Extraordinaire.” African Arts 40.1 (2007): 54
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