Ethnoarchaeology of Zulu pots in the UThukela Basin, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa
Recent archaeological studies of technology have considered the chaînes opératoires—sequences of culturally meaningful technical choices and the relations established through them. Pottery, for example, can be considered as part of a technological process that outlines, and evaluates, the ways in which individuals interrelate through daily activities (Lindhal & Pikirayi 2010: 135). From this perspective, what can pots tell us about social and cultural differences? To address this question, this paper presents the results of the first ethnoarchaeological study of pottery making by Zulu-speaking groups of the UThukela Basin, South Africa.
Set at the heart of KwaZulu-Natal region in South Africa (Figure 1), the UThukela Basin is a bioclimatic zone characterised by bimodal seasonal climate and rainfall, and distinct vegetation eco-zones (Fowler 2008). The basin’s catchment is divided into upper and lower sectors, lying, respectively, above and below the narrow winding river valley on the eastern side of the Tugela Falls.
In southern Africa, studies of Iron Age ceramics have generally employed two main approaches: technology and style (Gosselain 1992; Fowler 2008). Here, however, it is argued that it is possible to move beyond such typological debates in order to identify social aspects (Pikirayi 2007: 287). Ethnoarchaeology provides the theoretical and methodological tools to assess the production, distribution, consumption and discard of Zulu pottery in order to explore these social aspects.
Methods and results
The research involved fieldwork and semi-structured interviews to record pottery-making and firing technologies, types and locations of clay sources, and circulation and trade patterns. The potters in the UThukela basin were selected because they have the longest tradition of pottery production in the KwaZulu-Natal province (Fowler 2008). The fieldwork was conducted over two weeks in 2012, including interviews with six potters. The data were processed using ArcGIS 10 to visualise the spread of ceramics and associated features.
In many parts of Africa, craft production is a highly specialised female activity (see Gosselain 1992; Lindhal & Pikirayi 2010). In KwaZulu-Natal province, women practise ceramic production and their skills are passed on directly from one woman to another (e.g. lower basin potters share a common teacher) in the UThukela Basin. The potters of the UThukela Basin start by collecting their raw materials: clay (ubumba) and fuel for firing. Local potters source ubumba on the ground near dry riverbeds or by digging out clay and tempering material (Figure 2).
Potters use a range of clay types and the choice is guided by an individual’s capacity to identify the suitability of clay for specific pots. Clay is sorted by hand, based on texture and feel, to ensure workability. Two types of clays (black and reddish) are used. In the lower UThukela region, potters use only use one type of clay (from the Sthilo clay pit) with no added temper, while the potters from the upper UThukela region mix together two types of clays with differing physical properties to achieve a particular granulometric structure. Thereafter, water is added to the clay and it is worked to obtain a ‘homogenous paste’ (Fowler 2011: 185). Clay is stored in buckets, drums and old pots until required (Figure 3). Pots are shaped (Figure 4) using different tools. Potters use hair combs in the upper UThukela region, whereas the potters of the lower region use glass, thorns and stones to incise designs on their pots (Figure 5). Once decoration is complete, pots are left to dry for a number of days.
Firing is undertaken in shallow pits or depressions; the bisqued pots are then finished by ‘smudging’ (Rice 1987: 158, in Fowler: 2008: 497). In the lower basin, smudging involves the application of animal fat to the surface of the pots to give them a distinct feel and texture. In the upper basin, by contrast, smudging involves the application of crushed, red-hot cattle dung to give the pots’ surface a dark colour.
Smell is an important factor as "one might almost call them olfactory culture smells, which have meaning on economic, social and cosmological levels, serving as a means of classifying the natural and social universe" (Van Beek 1992: 38). The upper UThukela Basin potters make reference to the awful or terrible smell produced during firing as they employ cattle dung. Firing areas are thus located away from settlements (c. 100m). In the lower UThukela Basin, firewood and aloe leaves are used instead, and firing pits are located rather closer to settlements (c. 40m). After firing, pots are stored in a safe area before distribution. The UThukela basin potters emphasise the functional aspects of shape and size to distinguish ceramic categories (e.g. izinkhamba, umancishana, dabula-ibheshu; see Figure 6) as these are directly linked to vessel capacity, manoeuvrability and the availability of contents.
Discussion and conclusions
The data collected by this project permit the following conclusions:
While the basic technological steps of pottery production are shared by both groups in the UThukela Basin, there are differences in the types of tools, clays and fuel used, which, in turn, influence other considerations; for example, the location of firing pits.
Amongst these two Zulu-speaking groups, pottery production is a specialised activity undertaken by women who pass on their knowledge and skills directly.
Neither Zulu potters nor consumers are dependent on technical differences in the distinction of ceramic categories.
The results suggest that archaeologists need to look at culturally significant variables of production as well as style or decoration. Careful attention directed towards the chaînes opératoires is important for an understanding of Iron Age pottery in Southern Africa.
I would like to thank Ceri Ashley, Federica Sulas, Xander Antonites, Benjamin Sagacci, Alex Nxumalo and Johan Nell for their advice and support of this study. I would further like to thank Kent Fowler and Innocent Pikirayi for their advice and support. I am also grateful for the UThukela Basin potters, in particular L. Mgaga, H. Zondo and P. Zondo in the UMsinga area of the upper UThukela; and N. Nkwanyane, T. Xulu and T. Z. Dlamini of the lower UThukela Basin area, INkandla and EShowe regions. I finally thank SANPARKS and the National Research Foundation for their support.
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- Bongumenzi Nxumalo
Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Pretoria, House 11 1-08, Tuksdorp, Hatfield 0083, South Africa (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)