Clay Pots

© Eric Miller
The production of clay vessels was widespread among South Africa’s Iron Age communities. Associated most obviously with the storage, serving and consumption of food, these coiled pots also formed part of burial practices, rain-making ceremonies, and various rites involving the ancestral world. Among Venda-speakers, for example, royalty often kept pots linked to the ancestors away from public view. These containers were used as drinking vessels by the chief and his closest associates. To this day, men generally assist with the transportation of clay, which is usually sourced from the banks of rivers, but the skills required to produce pots are passed down from one generation of female specialists to another, often - but not always - from mother to daughter.

By Professor Sandra Klopper

Clay Pots: Forms and Function

Clay is a versatile material that in the past was used for a variety of purposes, some of which have since fallen away. When the artist, George Angas, visited the Zulu kingdom in 1847, he made sketches of two youths...more

Different Clay Mixtures Make Different Pots

In some communities, women leave a bundle of twigs at the clay source when visiting for the first time or returning after a significant pause, thereby acknowledging this important natural resource as a gift from the ancestors....more

Firing Clay Pots

Easily accessible sources of fuel for the firing of pots has become increasingly scarce due to excessive use of natural resources in over-populated rural communities....more

Pottery as an Art Form

In the past, skilled potters bartered their wares for chickens or grain, sometimes also exchanging pots for other locally manufactured items like grass mats and small pieces of beadwork....more

Reaching New Markets

Rural potters living close to high-density tourist destinations have taken advantage of the potential to develop new markets for their skills....more

Resilience in the Face of Change

In some rural communities, the practice of making clay pots has survived to this day, attesting to the importance traditionalists ascribe to continuity in the face of far-reaching change....more

Ritual Consumption of Beer

In the early 19th century, water-tight baskets rather than clay pots were sometimes used for drinking and storing beer. An engraving in the Rev. Joseph Shooter’s 1857 account of his work as a missionary...more

The Decoration of Clay Pots

Venda pottery goes back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Until recently pots like these were normally decorated with geometric patterns, including concentric circles....more