Carved Vessels
Household Artefacts

©Eric Miller & Heini Schneebeli
A bored stone and virtuoso lidded bowl linked by a chain carved from the single block of wood. H:18 cm and W:30 cm.

Unlike clay pots and other durable items such as beads and artefacts made from stone or metal, wood seldom survives in archaeological contexts. In South Africa, circumstantial evidence such as the discovery of stone spear tips and bored stones have been cited as examples of the use among Stone Age communities of hafted spears and wooden digging sticks, indicating that the practice of working in wood predates the adoption of iron tools to fashion household artefacts such as meat platters and vessels capable of holding liquids such as milk. In Limpopo Province, charred and other remains at Mapungubwe and K2 (Bambandyanalo), Southern Africa’s first state complex which flourished from about AD 1220 to 1300, afford evidence of cereal stamping blocks and the construction of doors and other architectural features made from wood such as steps and floors. 

Because there is virtually no surviving evidence prior to the 19th century of the production of carved household artefacts, it is difficult to know precisely when and why specialist artisans developed wood-working skills to serve the daily needs of local communities. It was only after the arrival in South Africa of missionaries and traders that comments on the production of skilled carvers began to emerge. In the past, many of these specialists bartered household artefacts in exchange for grain or items such as iron tools produced by other skilled artisans. Some became virtuoso carvers who worked for both indigenous leaders and external markets.

By Professor Sandra Klopper

Carving Tools and Techniques

Historically, indigenous carvers lacked access to the labour-saving tools that carvers commonly use today. In the absence of handy contraptions such as vices, they resorted to digging holes...more

Gourds

In South Africa, women are the main custodians of gourds, more commonly known as calabashes, growing them as a source of food and medicinal cures, and preparing them for use as containers, and for other purposes....more

Meat Platters

Meat platters are still commonly commissioned by rural Zulu-speaking communities for use on important ceremonial occasions such as weddings, celebrations to honour the ancestors and funerals....more

Milk Pails

Until quite recently, carved milk pails were used by communities throughout much of rural South Africa. These vessels were almost invariably cylindrical in form....more

Replacement of Old Vessels

In the course of the 20th century, plastic, ceramic and enamel containers gradually replaced the use of vessels woven from grass or carved from wood....more

Vessels Made for External Markets

Virtuoso carvings of spherical to pear-shaped wooden vessels like this one are often lidded. All have ridged or fluted surfaces. Some examples also have handles and tripod feet,...more