What was African pottery like?
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African Pottery

Nubian vase
Vase from Nubia (modern Sudan), ca. 3000 BC

January 2017 - The idea of making pottery got started in China and Japan about 14,000 BC and slowly spread west to India, Iran, Mesopotamia, and then from there to Africa. People in East Africa started to make clay pots about 6000 BC. From Sudan and Ethiopia to Egypt, the pottery styles are very similar.

By 400 BC, pottery-making had spread as far west as West Africa, where Nok and Yoruba potters were making pottery. They were also using clay to make large clay sculptures.

Around 75 AD, North African potters began to imitate imported Roman pottery, and soon they began to export their imitation Roman pottery all over the Mediterranean, Europe, and West Asia. By about 100 AD, the African pottery had driven Roman pottery-makers out of business, and most of the clay plates and cups used in the whole Roman Empire were made in North Africa. Some African pottery even was exported to India and Iran, and north to northern Europe.

Classic Kisalian pot
Pot from the Congo, ca. 1000 AD

About 200 AD, the Nok and Yoruba cultures in West Africa evolved into the Ife and Benin kingdoms, which each produced their own distinctive pottery. Further south, in Congo, the Kisalian culture started to produce pottery about 900 AD.

Islamic bowl from Carthage
Islamic pottery from Carthage (Byrsa Museum), ca. 1100 AD

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, North African pottery factories kept right on making pottery and selling it all over the Mediterranean area. When they became part of the Islamic Empire in the late 600s AD, North African potters kept on working. Imitating Chinese pottery that came to Africa along the Silk Road, North African potters now colored their pots white with various colors, using metal and glass glazes as we do today. But during the Middle Ages, North African factories slowly lost business to pottery producers in Iraq and Iran and China. Instead of selling pottery, now East Africans bought Chinese and Iranian pottery.

Learn by doing: make a clay pot
Egyptian Pottery
African Red Slip pottery
Islamic pottery

Bibliography and further reading about African pottery:

Egyptian Pottery
Roman Pottery
Islamic Pottery
Early African Art
Ancient Africa
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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