African Dinnerware History

Pottery making in Africa began around 9400 BC and continues to this day

Pottery is one of the oldest and most widespread of functional arts in Africa.
Creating African clay pots in Africa is unique. Pottery making has a long history in Africa and is one of the oldest functional arts using what is available in natural surroundings. Pottery is clay that is modeled, dried, and fired having practical uses in cooking, storing food, eating, drinking, and as ceremonial vessels.

In 2007, the Swiss-led team of archaeologists discovered pieces of the oldest African pottery in central Mali, dating back to at least 9,400BC. The discovery was made by Geneva University's Eric Huysecom and his international research team, at Ounjougou near the Unesco-listed Bandiagara cliffs. 

The age of the sediment in which they were found suggests that the six ceramic fragments - discovered between 2002 and 2005 - are at least 11,400 years old. Most ancient ceramics from the Middle East and the central and eastern Sahara regions are 10,000 and between 9-10,000 years old. 

Since the launch of the project in 1997, the team has made numerous discoveries about ancient stone-cutting techniques and tools, and other important findings that shed light on human development in the region. But the unearthing of the ancient fragments of burnt clay is one of the most significant to date.

Huysecom is convinced that pottery was invented in West Africa to enable man to adapt to climate change. "Apart from finding the oldest ceramic in Africa, the interesting thing is that it gives us information about when and under what circumstances man can invent new things, such as pottery," he explained. "And the invention of ceramic is linked to specific environmental conditions – the transformation of the region from a desert into grassland." 

The invention of ceramic also coincided with that of small arrowheads - also discovered by the team – and which were probably used to hunt hares, pheasants and other small game on the grassy plains. To date, East Asia – the triangle between Siberia, China, and Japan – is the only other area where similar pottery and arrowheads have been found which are as old as those in West Africa, explained Huysecom.

Clay is found in abundance everywhere on the African continent. Gathering the right type of clay is the first step, African women who have been making pots for generations are able to recognize good clay and other materials for making durable pottery.

The Ovambo, Kavango, and Caprivi tribes in Namibia, use the hardened clay from termite hills, as it contains the glue saliva from the termites. This termite clay makes pots quite strong and helps with the binding of the clay in forming the pot.

Pots ready for firing

Pottery has a utilitarian use in cooking, storing food items, eating, drinking, and as ritual vessels.  Tools used to make pottery are anything easily available such as a rock with a somewhat flat bottom, or a stick.

Clay is worked by hand and shaped and fashioned into the desired shape free hand by pinching, coiling, and slabs work.

           Early African pottery: Vase from Nubia (modern Sudan), ca. 3000 BC

Around 75 AD, North African potters were exporting their pottery all over the Mediterranean, Europe, and West Asia. By about 100 AD, African pottery had driven Roman pottery-makers out of business. So 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.


                                    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. These kingdoms also produced their own distinctive pottery. Further south, in Congo, the Kisalian culture started to produce pottery about 900 AD.


After the collapse of the Roman Empire, North African pottery factories kept right on making pottery. They still sold their pots 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. They made their colors with 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.


African Red Slip Ware
This African pottery was very successful. In fact, after about fifty years of production, the African pottery had completely put the Italian and South Gaulish factories out of business!

After that, nearly everyone in the western part of the Roman Empire, and even people living outside the empire, used African Red Slip pottery. Archaeologists find this pottery in England and Denmark, in Austria, in Spain, and as far east as Greece. And of course there is loads of it in North Africa. (In the eastern part of the empire, people kept using Eastern Sigillata).

African Red Slip plates and bowls

More African Red Slip pottery

But, once they had put the competition out of business, the North African potters didn’t worry too much about producing beautiful pottery. African Red Slip gradually became less carefully made.

References:Chic African Culture African Factbook:;By |May 19th, 2017|AfricaArt