Monday, 4 April 2016

A Pondoland coil-built pot (G.104) from the UCL Ethnography Collections

1. Description of object
     Base diameter
     Mouth diameter
     Largest diameter
     Thickness of the wall 


Figure3. The black areas that are highlighted are “firing clouding”

Figure 4. The illustration that shows the corrugated coils(Author 2016)    

G.104 is an unglazed, round coil-built pot from Pondoland in South Africa. The base is fairly flat therefore the pot can sit on the flat surface steadily. The colour of G.104 is burnt umber with colour variations in the formation of black areas, which are likely “firing clouding” (see Figure3).The raw materials of the pot G.104 are clay, non-plastics and water. Being helped by Dr. Patrick Sean Quinn, four pieces of small fragments, measured 1-2mm, fall out from the pot were analysed by thin sectioning (see Figure 5, 6, 7, 8). The small fragments of G.104 prepared as a thin section shows that the mineral inclusions in the sample highly match with the geological compositions of the rocks in the Pondoland and portions of Alfred and lower Umzimkulu counties and southern Natal. Therefore it could be seen that the raw materials of G.104 possibly derived from the weathering rocks from these areas.

100x images
                                          50x images

Figure 5., 6., 7., 8. are the images of the thin section of the fragment of G.104. Brown colour is the clay body. Materials in white and other variable colours are the mineral components of non-plastic inclusion. (Author, 2016)

Pottery manufacture processes can be broken down into three stages: obtaining and preparing; forming pottery vessel ; and drying and firing (see Figure 9, 10, 11). The interior side of G.104 was evened by scraping or smoothing by hands. However the potter did not obliterate the joins between the coils on the exterior. Rolls of clay were placed on the top of each other to build up the wall of this pot (see Figure 4). Each coil is rugged and undulating. Therefore they seem corrugatedThe method of firing might have been open firing, probably in a temperature between 750-850°C in an oxidising atmosphere.

Figure9. Woman in Pondoland rolling clay between the hands to form coil (UCT libraries digital collections, 1936)
Figure10. Woman in Pondoland building up the wall by placing a series of circular coils on the top of one another around the circumference and progressively increasing the height (UCT libraries digital collections, 1936)
Figure11.The potter is obliterating the joins between the coils on the interior (Rye, 1981, 67)

2. Contexts
Figure 12. From left to right: G.107, G.106 and G.105 (Author, 2016)
The tags of these pots show the different stages of the manufacturing process: 1st stage (G.104), 2nd stage (G.105), 3rd stage (G.106) and finished pot (G.107). The previous accession numbers are also in the order: 206, 207, 208, 209. Coils on G.105 are slightly and partly joined together by smoothing the surface roughly. The coils are flatter than the coils on G.104. However the shape of each coils are still visible and the surface is still rugged. On G.106, the surface of the pot was totally smoothed. As for G.107, it is the final pot with not only evened surface but also paints and impressed decorations (punctations) by using the natural objects as the tools, likely fingernails, shells or hollow canes (Rye, 1981, 92). 

G.104 is now located in the Material Culture Room at the UCL Department of Anthropology and there are no records of its past history or the information about how and when it was acquired. However, according to the Wellcome Collection’s documentation, University College London received some African objects from the Wellcome Collection in a series of gifts in 1950s (History of the Ethnography Collections, n.d.). Thus this pot might be one of these gifts and has been part of the collection of Material Culture Room since then. The actual date of manufacture and the potter remain unknown. However it is hypothesised that it might have been made in the early 20th century for the purpose of teaching with the other three pots in the same collection - as this series of pots clearly illustrate the different stages in the process of making coiled pot (see Figure 12). They offer the possibility of demonstrating craftsmanship, the forming technique and chaîne opératoire of South African potteryIn addition, G.104 has potential for scientific examination or study of geology, as the components of raw materials could be associated with the geological map. Therefore the significance of these pots is attributed to their scientific / research/ technical values and teaching potentials.

3.  Assessment of condition.
The overall condition of G.104 is fair. However the object is covered in superficial dust. The structure is sound. The surface is slightly friable. However the fragments only seldom fall out from the surface and the falling pieces are always tiny, measured about 1-2mm. Therefore the slight instability of surface is unlikely to be linked to structural deformation. The white matters in the interior base are more likely to be dust than salt and they seem to have become more ingrained. Further investigation of these matters is required. There are several signs of abrasion, dent and scratch. White smudge and stain could also be detected. There are evidences of past conservation work, which are two tiny tangled fiber balls possibly from the cotton ball stuck in the crack on the exterior. It indicates that the object might have been cleaned in the past.

Bibliography Buys, S., & Oakley, Victoria. (1993). The conservation and restoration of ceramics (Butterworth-Heinemann series in conservation and museology Y). Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
ETHNOGRAPHY COLLECTIONS., n.d. History of the Ethnography . Retrieved on 3 March 2016 from World Wide Web:

Oakley, V., & Jain, Kamal K. (2002). Essentials in the care and conservation of historical ceramic objects. London: Archetype.

Orton, C., Hughes, Mike, & Hughes, M. J. (2013). Pottery in archaeology (2nd ed., Cambridge manuals in archaeology Y). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

R. H. R. (1921). The Geology Of Pondoland. Geological Magazine, 58(3), 131-132.

Rice, P. (1987). Pottery analysis : A sourcebook. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Rye, O. (1981). Pottery technology : Principles and reconstruction (Manuals on archeology ; 4). Washington, D.C.: Taraxacum.

Shepard, A. (1956). Ceramics for the archaeologist (Carnegie Institution of Washington publication ; 609). Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Smith, R. (1955). Ceramic sequence at Uaxactun, Guatemala (Publication (Tulane University. Middle American Research Institute) ; 20). New Orleans: Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University.

Thomas, R.J., Ashwal, L.D., & Andreoli, M.A.G. (1992). The petrology of the Turtle Bay Suite: A mafic-felsic granulite association from southern Natal, South Africa. Journal of African Earth Sciences, 15(2), 187-206.

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

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