(*) (*) issue 9 (*)

Articles & Reviews

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The Pottery of Northern Ghana continued

Anna Craven, ethnographer/independent researcher (Africa, SW Pacific)


A special but nondescript form of storage pot is one in which the placenta is buried after a woman has given birth; the form can also be used for holding and preparing herbs (Dagomba). (Fig.23) Pots associated with special events or death include grave markers: turned face down, they appear from a distance to be like open-mouthed basins. When a woman dies, most of her pots are broken at the funeral (needed in the next life) by the women of her husband's house. This includes a funeral pot which among the Nankanni of the Navrongo area (UER) every woman must have, and must provide too for her eldest daughter (1964).

Widespread through much of West Africa (and beyond) are the ritual ‘studded’ pots, sometimes with studded lids (though often these have been broken), which are used for protection and in protective ceremonies associated with the ancestral spirits. They are still made in the Nankanni area of Sirigu and Frafra area of Bolga (UER) and sold in the markets. (Fig.24) Nobody was able to tell us what the raised studs or knobs represented, though one man suggested that spirits resided in the knobs, but the pots were handled without particular reverence: this was rather expressed in the reluctance to say more about their function and how they would be used. Their power is associated with ceremonies and sacrifices performed within people's compounds. (Fig.25)


‘Ordinary’ pots also become imbued with spiritual power when incorporated in shrines built within compounds and entrance areas. These have protective or placatory functions, to help acquire good health, fertility for humans or crops, and good fortune. Where the shrines are still actively used in places of extremely strong ancestral spirit beliefs they are plastered in feathers of sacrificed hens or guinea fowl, or lie in association with dog, sheep, goat or donkey bones. (Fig.26) On the flat roof-tops of Upper West compounds (e.g.Tovuore Lawra, Dagaaba) pots were placed near the openings of granaries accessed from the roof, to protect against pilfering, damage and evil.

Some special types of pottery used for shrines and rituals are only obtainable on commission from potters in the village, and would not appear in markets. Figurines we were shown in 2007, all made by one woman it emerged, are kept inside and ‘consulted’ in times of ill-health and bad fortune. That these were made and sold from her compound by one individual would suggest there was scope for innovations in concept and design. However, some of her figures represent stylistic forms of features and personal adornment from the past (lip-plugs); only one she said was inspired by seeing a soldier on the street: he was blessed with a very large penis, perhaps symbolising the power of his role. (Fig.27)


Across the whole area, though the extent of the restrictions varies between ethno-linguistic groups, the manufacture of pots with holes2 is restricted to women past the menopause, who are widows, or who have borne children who died. For other potters, the making of such pots would threaten the life and health of future unborn children and husbands. These beliefs and practices are widespread beyond national borders. Nevertheless such pots are sold openly in markets. (Fig.28)

Shrines seen and information given in 2007 show that beliefs and practices apparent in 1964 still remain today. After all, villagers still face problems and situations they cannot control: illness, infant mortality, the rain and floods which destroyed much of the millet crop in 2007, and particularly poverty.


Manufacture: tools and techniques

Forms and designs associated with particular ethno-linguistic groups are still distinct. Some have not changed at all in 43 years: the Basari mica-filled pots from Togo on sale in Tatali market have retained all the features of those bought in 1964. (Fig. 29) In other cultural contexts, the comparisons are less precise as the pots we saw or bought are not the absolute equivalents. (Fig.30a and Fig.30b)


Methods seem not to have changed over the years: the tools are still the same with a few additions of items to hand, their use in the formation of the pots remain the same with few innovations. Barbara Priddy observed in the 1970s, which is still the case today in 2007, that women marry in to families of the same linguistic group (though not necessarily the same dialect) where they learn to pot from their mother-in-law or their co-wives, if they have not already learnt from their own mother or grandmother, and so tradition passes down through the generations, and techniques, shapes, forms and designs are maintained. Asukpienglie is now in her sixties and first married in Fumbisi (Builsa) where, before she had children, she learnt potting from Apokbil, a family member now dead. She then moved to Sinyagsa, a hamlet near Wiaga (also Builsa), where she is married to her second husband Anamosi. Here she is leader of about seventeen potters, women who have married in and daughters of the extended family, all of whom she taught to pot. (Fig.31)


Clay comes from nearby claypits, for the most part, a few minutes walk away. (Fig.32a) Potters dig their own clay, and occasionally there have been tragedies when deep pits have collapsed in on, in one recent instance, an elderly woman and her young girl helper. The potter Yiniyaong in Birifor-Tanzier was unusual in that since the clay source was three miles away she sometimes paid someone to dig it and deliver to her. As potters become elderly, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to access clay, and their productivity drops off. Sources of clay are communal, and the clay free except in some places where annual sacrifices of fowls provided by the potters are carried out by the tindaana, a priest responsible for the welfare of the land. This is to show gratitude to the ancestors and to ensure the clay is of good quality. Occasionally such a person might be given a pot, or money. His spiritual role is separate from that of chiefs which are political appointments.   

Once brought back to the compound, some of the clay may be stored inside a room or ‘hallway', or in an old pot or metal bowl, or in a heap outside covered with plastic. (Fig.32b) This will be used during the wet season when claypits are waterlogged. Before it can be used it is dried, pounded, sieved and larger particles removed. Water and grog (see below) or sand are added as appropriate, and the mixture worked together with the hands or a pestle on a board or, in one case, on a split inner tube (Bogda, Dagaaba).



Some clays need to be tempered with sand or grog to strengthen a pot and to prevent cracking during firing; this has to be mixed evenly throughout the clay to avoid any local weakness in the pot wall. Pot fragments are pounded to a coarse powder (grog) using a wooden pestle and mortar. The grog is then kept in old pots or metal basins for later use. (Fig.33) Usually there are plenty of broken pots or potsherds in and around the compound. But in the town of Salaga, east side of the Northern Region, a Nchumru potter Adjoa has to buy in her potsherds as she does not generate enough herself. In some localised areas grog is not needed3 or sand is used.4



The pot is started either from a lump which is fisted into a shallow bowl-shape and the walls pulled up slightly before being built up with a series of prepared sausages; or fat cylinders are rolled out between the palms and pushed into place around a concave potsherd, leaving the centre bare for in-filling later. (Fig.34) The potsherd (or equivalent) allows the pot to be turned slowly as it is built up. If the pot is much larger the potter is more likely to walk round it, backwards; in this case the cylinders are much rougher and the pot walls thicker. In all techniques, the pot wall is built, pulled and thinned gradually upwards with a series of tools to scrape the inside and outside used against the hand or the fingers, or another tool. Describing the process very generally, the tools are combinations of hard seed pods, pieces of plastic, of calabash, a maize or millet cob, an iron ring (kwora) which smiths sell in markets, sometimes with a toothed or serrated edge. Calabash pieces or the equivalent are used to form the neck; and the rim, after excess clay is cut off with a knife, or pinched off with the fingers, is smoothed with either a wet rag, leaf, piece of cow or goat hide, or paper. (Fig. 35a and 35b)


The outer body of the pot is smoothed and burnished, once it has dried somewhat, using a maize or millet cob, a smooth stone such as a river pebble, a wooden paddle, or amongst the Konkomba, a slightly concave ceramic disc held in the palm of the hand to gently hammer around the curve of the pot (litatabl). The potter makes this tool herself. (Fig. 36)


Patterns on some pots are produced with a roulette (twisted string or stalk) which may be rolled or pressed on the surface; and with any appropriate sharpish object to hand to draw grooves, or to impress or imprint marks in groups or a repeated pattern. The rough outer surface produced with a maize or millet cob can be left undecorated: it gives a better grip for handling.

Cooking pots are sometimes dyed black with a black mineral slip before firing (graphite, gbangban, in Bimoba of Sisi, or black clay, fokunda, in Busanga of Zebilla, both UER). They can also be turned black by burning with millet heads during firing, being doused in rice or groundnut chaff at the very end of firing, or immediately on extraction from the fire using a long stick or sickle-shaped implement, by being splashed with a liquid prepared from the soaked pods, leaves or fruit of various trees, using a broom. The plant most commonly used is dawadawa (Parkia clappertoniana); ebony fruit, and kaputepute (Gonja) tree bark (Bridelia ferruginea) have also been identified (some of the concoctions are boiled, others used cold). The effect varies, some pots being turned more solidly black, others appearing obviously splashed with uneven stains over the body of the pot, not deliberately patterned. (Fig.37a)


Larger red storage pots once slipped with a laterite-based liquid, (Fig.37b) prepared from local gravel or purchased as processed balls in the market (e.g. Builsa area of Wiaga), are burnished again, sometimes with a string of baobab seeds. (Fig.38) In Savelugu Sanata Alikama mixes the laterite with kerosene and sheabutter; the black colour she produces from burning rice bran. Both processes, the burnishing with laterite and the sealing with plant dye, reduce the porosity of pots, and potters say strengthen the pot. With water storage jars or coolers, evaporation is required to a certain extent; burnishing may extend down two-thirds of the body, with simple decoration round the shoulder. Any decoration on the upper half of the body will be ‘for beauty’ ‘to make the pot look attractive', and can consist of straight or curved incised lines, dots or triangles using the ends of nails, stalks, narrow edges of pebbles, with infilling from roulettes; or raised ridges can be applied in waves (Kusasi, Talensi). The Konkomba potters then cold-paint over their design with plant dye, following the arches and finishing off the rims, once the pot is cool, and this can be done anytime later.


Each potter will recognise her own work, but in potting centres close to market towns where many pots are sold, marks to identify the maker are added, e.g. Dagomba pots made in Kukuo and Jekariyili sold in Tamale market. (Fig.39)


Firing can be done of a few pots at a time by individual potters near their compound, or out in the farm where access to firewood might be easier and they can continue farming while the fire burns. (Fig.40a) Or potters come together to help each other fire a larger number. (Fig.40b) This does not mean that everyone adds their pots to the communal fire: two potters might share a firing assisted by others who fire later. In 2007 we were unlucky not to see any firing: for most of the time conditions were too wet. The dry season around November to February is the best time for firing: firewood is dry, there is plenty of dry grass, and farming is less demanding. Some processes last about an hour, other firings are done overnight and the pots left till morning to cool. Apart from the Kusasi area (UER), where simple kilns are traditional (not seen), modern kilns seem not to have been introduced into northern villages.


Pots can break during firing if they lack grog, or have been insufficiently dried out beforehand. Barbara Priddy (unpublished notes) describes a communal firing in the Dagaaba village of Kaleo (north of Wa, UWR), where two pots, made only that morning by one of the potters firing in haste before the market next day, exploded. The other women laughed at their colleague's lack of care. The pots, however, were successfully repaired and refired. Among the Dagaaba, repairs to small cracks in fired pots are sometimes made using fruit of the ga tree (Diospyros mespiliformis), or the juice of the war tree fruit (Saba senegalensis).


2.   Multiply pierced strainers for preparing dawadawa seedpods (Parkia clappertoniana), steaming vegetables or smoking meat or fish, pot-stands for large round-based storage pots, and fowl drinking troughs. back to text
3.   Lobi/Dagaaba/Gonja areas of Wagawaga, Bole, Nyoli and Dafiama on the west side, in the north-central Sisala and Kasena areas of Pulima and Chiana. back to text
4.   Lawra and Hamale in the north-west (Dagaaba), and north-central Builsa area of Fumbisi/Sandema. back to text

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The Pottery of Northern Ghana

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An Angolan Heritage: The Ceramics of Helga Gamboa

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Dialogues with Tradition in the Ceramics of Eytan Gross

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Sankofa exhibition at Manchester, review

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Sankofa exhibition at Aberystwyth, review

by Kathy Talbot and Louise Chennell

Searching For Beauty, Richard Jacobs, book review

by Conor Wilson

Review of the event 'Richard Jacobs and Jeffrey Jones in conversation in Cardiff

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Breaking the Mould, book review

by Alison Britton

Kiln Building, Jo Finch, book review

by Tom Barnett


© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated

The Pottery of Northern Ghana • Issue 10