When looking at potters at work, it always looks so easy, but it isn’t, there are a lot of preparation and ritual connected to the making of African pottery.
In Africa, the making of clay pots and special objects, always had some superstition or magical ritual attached to it. In some tribes only the women are allowed to make pots, other the men and still in other tribes both genders. In some cultures there had to be a cleansing ritual before any work on pottery can begin, and in other a man wasn’t allowed to be with a woman the night before, or a woman menstruating wasn’t allowed near the pits.
To make a pot a few things is needed, clay, a temper, the skill, and last but not least the fire.
The Ovambo, Kavango and Caprivi tribes in Namibia, use the hardened clay from termite hills, as it contain the glue saliva from the termites. This termite clay make pots quite strong and help with the binding of the clay in forming the pot.
This how they collect and prepare the termite clay: The women will look for an termite mount (hill) that has been build on fine sandy or clay area. They will break the hard clay out from one side of the mount and carry the chunks back to the village. Here it get pounded in wood mortars and sifted till only a fine powder is left. The powder get mixed with finely mortared goat dung (which act as an temper), and then water is added slowly. All the time the clay is rolled and kneed with the hands, till clay is formed
In the rain forest areas of West Africa, where streams and rivers run year round, clay is usually mined close to existing watercourses. Clay is dug from the banks of streams when the water is low. The clay is usually piled high on the banks, above the high-water mark, so that it can be later carried to the work area. Enough clay is dug while the pits are accessible to keep the potters supplied throughout the rainy season, when the pits are full of water.
Farther south, in the dry savannah, clay is mined in deep pits, and even in shafts, which have no connection with any source of running water. This is clay which either has been created by in-place weathering and decomposition, or, more frequently, has been transported and deposited by a stream or river which has long since dried up.
Fresh clay is dug from the pits with short handled hoes or digging sticks and is carried in baskets to the potter's compound, where it is left in piles to dry. It is then broken up, usually by pounding in wooden mortars, and any stones or other foreign matter are picked out by hand. The clay is broken up into small chunks so that it will absorb water, or "slake" more rapidly and more evenly. The clay is then placed in large earthenware pots, mixed with water, and left for several days to soak.
To prevent the pots from cracking a temper are used, the temper creates basically space for the clay molecules to expand without cracking the pot.
Tempers used in Africa vary widely, but may be generally classed in two categories: organic-and inorganic.
Organic tempers include finely chopped straw, dried animal dung pounded into a powder, or the chaff left when rice or millet is winnowed.
Inorganic tempers include: ground-up dried river mud or, most commonly, shards of old pottery which have been reduced to a fine powder by pounding it in a wooden mortar.
Tempers are kneaded into the fresh clay in amounts, which vary with the original quality of the material. Generally, the result is a clay body with from thirty to fifty percent inert material. At the same time that the tempers are being added, the potter or his/her assistant adds quantities of dry, powdered clay, which absorb excess water from the slaked material, until the clay is the right consistency for use. Finally the clay is shaped into the thick sausages or balls, which the potter will use in forming his/her pots.
There are a wide variety of ways to making the pots, two of these ways are the spiral way and the mould way.
In the spiral way clay pieces or sausages are used in a spiralling fashion to build the pot up from a base which rest in a mould to support the base. From time to time the potter needs to stop to give the clay time to stiffen or dry a bit, other-wise it will fall in under it’s own weight. Water is used to smooth the sides of the pot.
In the mould way, a mould pot are used over which clay are pounded until it assumes the form of the mould pot. The pot is then left to dry a bit to a more manageable dryness after which the pot are then slowly removed from the mould pot and place near fire or in a dry place to dry and stiffen.
Before firing, the pot get 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. Sometimes if it to wet, a method known as pre-firing is used, where individual pots are hold for a short time over a fire to get the moisture out of the pot.
Firing of the pots begin when a thick layer of burning material are laid on the ground on which the dried pots are laid out, after the first layer of pots a second layer of burning material are laid on top of the pots. If there are many pots the pots are layer out layer upon layer with burning material between them.
The whole heap of pottery and burning material are then burned. After a few hours all the burning material has burned away, and the pots are left to cool down. The broken and defect pots are separated from the good ones and later used as temper with the clay again.
I would like to stress the above is by no means the only way in which pottery are made in Africa, almost every tribe has their own way of making their pottery.