Ceramics and Pottery

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Ceramics and Pottery


Cultural-Historical Periods. Like weaving, pottery making evolved around the third or second millennium B.C.E. in the middle Nile region and existed in West Africa by the beginning of the Common Era. It is notable that Ile-Ife, Owo, and Benin shared the same “ceramic sphere” during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth

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centuries. That is, as Akinwumi O. Ogundiran has explained, despite some stylistic differences between Ile-Ife and Benin, similarities in their ceramics from this period suggest a close cultural historical link between the two areas that distinguishes them from the ceramics of surrounding Yoruba and Edo territories. Ogundiran identifies “three major cultural-historical periods” of Ile-Ife and Benin society: the “pre-Classic,” prior to the twelfth century; the “Classic,” from the twelfth to the sixteenth century; and the “post-Classic,” from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century.

The Pre-Classic Period. In the pre-Classic periods closely linked, yet independent, villages coordinated their interactions without dynastic rule. It may be that matrilinearity was prevalent in this period as evinced by the deified female rulers, whose stories have been passed down in such local oral traditions as the Osun and Yemoja narrative. With respect to the ceramic finds, archaeological evidence suggests occupation of the area from the sixth century. In some areas, consistency of ceramic style indicates cultural longevity and the presence of an indigenous population prior to the Oduduwa migratory era around the year 1000, when the Yoruba arrived in the area and largely displaced the indigenous population.

The Classic Period. The Classic period is characterized by the evolution of formal kingship traditions set in urban centers. An extensive cache of terra-cotta figures and potsherd pavements from this period has been uncovered. The Ile-Ife and Benin cultural sites of the Classic era are associated with specific decorative motifs that appear to indicate cultural preferences as well as changes within the cultural and/or external influences. Ogundiran points to similarities in jar rims and bowls as evidence of interaction between Ile-Ife and Benin from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries.

Designs. Like designs in textiles, those found on pottery communicate information to individuals versed in a specific culture. For example, corroborating oral narratives about religio-spiritual traditions of the period, the herringbone motif found on several ceramic vessels represents leaves, which are symbolic of ritual and religious ceremonies and ideologies. The production of ceramic vessels required a sophisticated manipulation of and experimentation with local soils, minerals, animal materials, and plants, and it resulted in the creation of beautiful art and artifacts of material culture.


Adu Boahen, Topics in West African History (London: Longman, 1966).

Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002).

François Neyt, with the assistance of Andrée Déirant, The Arts of theBenue: To the Roots of Tradition (N.p.: Editions Hawaiian Agronomics, 1985).

Akinwumi O. Ogundiran, “Filling a Gap in the Ife-Benin Interaction Field (Thirteenth-Sixteenth Centuries A.D.): Excavations in Iloyi Settlement, Ijesaland,” African Archaeological Review, 19 (March 2002): 27-60.

Doran H. Ross, Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998).

Barbara Thompson, The Earth Transformed: Ceramic Arts of Africa, The Virtual Research Center for African Ceramics Project, 2000 <http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/african-ceramic-arts/>.