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Stuck in Time: The Unchanging Art of Ethiopian Pottery

Open Letter to Mayor Adanech Abiebie

Ethiopian Pottery
Author provided image

By LJDemissie
March 10, 2024

Dear Mayor Adanech Abiebie of Addis Ababa,

An experienced artisan can finish a ceramic pottery piece in minutes, as stated in a YouTube video titled ‘How 15,000 Ceramics Are Made A Day at Mitti Cool in Gujarat, India’ by the reputable news outlet Business Insider India. This highlights the speed and efficiency of pottery production in certain contexts. In stark contrast, AddisWalta – AW’s, one of Ethiopia’s state media, quotes the most experienced professional Ethiopian potters organized by the city, who say they make only five to ten pieces per potter per day. This underscores the stark reality that Ethiopia’s traditional pottery practices are on an unsustainable path, unless a balance is struck between preserving tradition, embracing machinery, and fostering technical education.

Author’s Note: Your hard work over the past three years, accomplishments, and sincerity have deeply touched my heart. Your inspiring words have motivated me to present this concise research, hoping you would implement it as I have seen you complete countless projects. It is inexpensive, and you already have the resources. I suggest that the mayor consider leading the implementation of this research, which includes the initiative to build a concrete container for soaking clay soil, a second concrete container for drying the wet clay soil, and a brick kiln for burning organic materials, including wood-fired pottery. 

The kiln should be located in the available open space outside the potters’ workspace to mitigate the health risks associated with inhaling smoke. Since concrete is porous and might absorb some of the soaking water, mitigate it by sealing the concrete containers with a suitable waterproofing agent.

I recommend engaging builders for the design and construction of the concrete containers and the brick kiln. Furthermore, before implementing the recommendations of this research, it would be beneficial for the mayor to solicit advice from universities, the mining minister, cement factories, builders, and construction workers. 

I trust that with the mayor’s leadership and the city’s organization that I have witnessed, this project will be implemented as soon as possible at Adanech’s speed and will significantly benefit the potters the city has organized.

Recognizing the Mayor’s Efforts: In a first for Ethiopia’s pottery history, the city of Addis Ababa has organized a workforce of over 300 women traditional potters and 200 assistants. They have been equipped with a large warehouse for processing raw materials, crafting and firing pottery, storage, and a sales room. An open-air space is also available for sun-drying clay soil and potteries. This team, which includes both men and women, kneads wet clay soil using their bare feet or hands. I noted that due to the lack of smoke protection gear during the pottery firing process in the warehouse, workers are exposed to smoke-related health hazards.

Introduction: I have diligently studied, researched, and analyzed the documentary about the Ethiopian traditional pottery-making process posted on AddisWalta – AW’s YouTube Channel on February 26/27, 2024. The current process involves digging, sun-drying, sifting, soaking (often referred to as ‘fermentation’), and kneading wet clay soil using bare feet and hands. This process yields a production rate of 5 to 10 pieces per potter per day depending on the size of the pottery, indicating very low productivity.

Current Process: The traditional Ethiopian method of processing clay soil involves the following steps:

  1. Dig out the clay soil from a clay deposit.
  2. Sun-dry the clay soil thoroughly and remove any large debris such as rocks or plant material.
  3. Sift the sun-dried clay soil.
  4. Soak the dried clay soil in water. It appears that the clay soil is soaked in a small mud pit inside the warehouse by mixing it with water. The belief is that the longer the clay soil stays in the water, the more it ‘ferments’. This ‘fermentation’ process is thought to enhance the quality of the pottery.
  5. Knead the soaked clay soil using bare feet.
  6. Wedge the kneaded clay by further kneading and compressing the clay soil using hands. This technique removes air bubbles from kneaded clay, evens out its consistency, and distributes moisture evenly. It helps in achieving a smooth clay, ready for shaping in pottery making.
  7. Make a pottery, sun dry it and then smoke it to remove moisture before firing it. 
  8. Depending on the size of the pottery, produce 5 to 10 pieces of pottery per day, or 20 to 50 pieces per week.

Proposed Improvements: After thorough analysis, I propose a revised version of the process to streamline operations, increase productivity and protect potters’ health:

  1. Dig out the clay soil from a clay deposit.
  2. Soak the clay soil in water for an extended period to allow for ‘fermentation’ or breakdown of the soil. This process is often referred to as “hydration” or “slaking”.
  3. Stir or blend the soaked clay soil to speed up the dissolution of chunks. This process can be referred to as “mixing” or “blending”.
  4. Filter the stirred clay soil to remove debris. In the context of pottery, a mixture of clay and water that has a fluid consistency is often referred to as a “slurry”. This term is used when the clay is mixed with a significant amount of water, creating a liquid or semi-liquid mixture that can be used for various purposes, such as joining pieces of clay together or casting in molds.
  5. Knead the filtered clay soil. They might still need to knead the clay soil using bare feet and hands until they acquire a pug mill.
  6. Store the Clay: Keep the kneaded moist clay in a sealed plastic bag or airtight container. The goal is to prevent the clay from drying out. 
  7. Wait: Allow the kneaded moist clay to age (a process Ethiopian potters refer to as ‘fermentation’) for at least a few weeks, or even months if possible. During this time, the clay particles will fully absorb the water, which can make the clay easier to work with.
  8. Wedge: Further knead and compress the kneaded clay soil using hands. This technique removes air bubbles from kneaded clay, evens out its consistency, and distributes moisture evenly. It helps in achieving a smooth clay, ready for shaping in pottery making. 
  9. Maintain the traditional method of pottery-making, which includes sun drying and smoking the pottery to remove moisture before firing. Preserve the traditional firing method to avoid altering the clay’s chemical composition. To mitigate health hazards, construct a separate area for smoking that is isolated from the potters. Since the video didn’t showcase the firing kiln, I have no comments about it.
  10. To build the right kind of wood, leaf, or dung-fired kiln, there are many factors to consider, such as the size, temperature, and cost of the kiln, and the chemical composition of their pottery after it was burned in their traditional kiln to find out the intended outcome. This is a process called ceramic petrology, which studies the origin, occurrence, structure, and history of the material used in a ceramic object. By analyzing the mineralogy, texture, and microstructure of the pottery, ceramic petrologists can determine the firing temperature, atmosphere, and duration of the pottery, as well as the clay source and the additives or contaminants present in the clay.
  11. Aim to increase the production rate of the potters by introducing basic tools used in clay soil pottery such as the potter’s wheel, pottery sponge, clay cutter, and digital scale for measuring clay to enhance precision and consistency. By the way, “Around 3,000 BCE: In Mesopotamia and Egypt, the potter’s wheel was developed, considerably accelerating and improving pottery manufacture4. More intricate and symmetrical shapes were made possible by the development of the wheel.”

In the context of my proposed improvements for the traditional Ethiopian pottery process, the introduction of a pug mill could potentially replace the step of kneading the clay using bare feet, thereby making the process more efficient and less labor-intensive. However, the feasibility of this would depend on the cost of such machinery.

Experimental Proposal: To further validate the proposed improvements, I suggest conducting a small-scale experiment. This experiment could involve soaking a certain amount of clay soil in a bucket or a similar container, following the “hydration” or “slaking” process I’ve outlined. By observing the changes in the texture and workability of the clay, you can gather valuable insights into the effectiveness of this method. This hands-on approach not only provides practical evidence but also allows for adjustments and refinements to the process based on the results. Remember, the goal is to enhance efficiency while preserving the traditional quality of Ethiopian pottery. Let’s embrace innovation while honoring tradition.

Note: It’s important to clarify that the term “fermentation” used in the traditional process is not technically accurate. Clay soil doesn’t ferment in the way organic matters such as grains do. Instead, the soaking process allows the clay particles to fully hydrate and break down, which can improve the workability of the clay. This process might be better described as “hydration” or “soaking”. Sharing this information with the potters could enhance their understanding and potentially lead to further improvements in the pottery process.

There are two primary methods of processing clay soil after it is dug out for pottery: sun drying and soaking:

Sun Drying: This method, which Ethiopian potters use, involves drying the clay soil in the sun to decrease its moisture content, making it easier to handle, mold, and shape. The sun-dried clay becomes more plastic, allowing precise shaping, and the risk of cracking during firing is minimized. After sun drying, the clay is rehydrated by soaking it in water and then kneading and wedging it to distribute the moisture evenly. This process ensures consistent plasticity and enhances the workability of the clay. These two steps, to dry and then rehydrate the clay, although seemingly counterintuitive, are essential for achieving the desired properties in the clay, such as consistency, workability, and stability, and play a vital role in creating pottery pieces.

Sun drying clay soil serves as a critical step in pottery, balancing moisture levels and enhancing its plasticity. So, while it may appear unnecessary at first glance, it plays a vital role in creating beautiful ceramic pieces. 

Soaking: When clay soil is sourced directly from the ground, it often contains impurities and is too hard for immediate use in pottery. Here’s how wet processing helps: The clay soil is soaked in water, which helps to break down the hard lumps and makes the clay more manageable. The soaked clay is then passed through a sieve to remove stones, plant material, and other impurities. The sieved clay mixture is left to settle, allowing the heavier impurities to sink to the bottom and the clean clay to settle on top. The clean clay is carefully decanted into another container, leaving the impurities behind. 

Finally, the clean, wet clay is allowed to dry until it reaches a workable consistency. This wet processing method ensures that the clay is clean, malleable, and ready for use in pottery, making it a crucial step in preparing high-quality clay for ceramic artistry.

Scientific approach to clay preparation: Understanding the chemical makeup of clay soil can significantly enhance the quality of a pottery. The composition of clay, particularly the amounts of silica (SiO2) and alumina (Al2O3), influences its properties such as plasticity, workability, and firing temperature. For instance, clay rich in SiO2 and Al2O3 can be fired at high temperatures without shrinkage.

Moreover, the presence of certain elements like iron (Fe2O3) can affect the aesthetics of the final pottery products. Therefore, understanding the chemical composition of clay can help potters troubleshoot problems, create more consistent pieces, and even enhance the quality of their ceramic products.

Therefore, it is highly recommended to have clay soil source analyzed by the Ministry of Mines, Ethiopia. Their expertise and resources can provide with a detailed understanding of clay’s composition. This knowledge can help troubleshoot problems, create more consistent pieces, and even enhance the quality of pottery products.

Remember, while traditional methods like sun drying and soaking are crucial, a scientific approach to clay preparation, including chemical analysis, can offer valuable insights for pottery. Embrace this opportunity to elevate Ethiopian traditional pottery to new heights.

Conclusion: I believe this refined process will make pottery-making less labor-intensive and more efficient. The construction of the brick kiln outside the warehouse in the available open space mitigates health risks caused by inhaling smoke. I eagerly anticipate sharing my comprehensive research in an upcoming article. These insights could enhance understanding of the pottery process and lead to further improvements.

The current production rate of traditional Ethiopian pottery is between 5 to 10 pieces per day, translating to approximately 20 to 50 pieces per week, depending on the size of the pottery. This article’s goal is to increase this production rate while preserving the traditional quality of the pottery. I am confident that with the proposed process improvements, this article’s objective can be achieved. 

Disclaimer: My analysis, research, and suggestions are based on the AddisWalta – AW’s YouTube video I watched about the Ethiopian pottery-making process. If I were to study the pottery-making process on-site, I might arrive at slightly different suggestions. My aim is to respect and preserve the traditional methods while suggesting potential enhancements for efficiency and sustainability.

The writer, LJDemissie, who received assistance from AI technology developed by OpenAI, can be reached at LJDemissie@yahoo.com

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com

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