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The Role and Status of Women in the Pottery-Making Traditions of the Western Balkans

Richard Carlton, School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne and Director of The Archaeological Practice Ltd.




This paper focuses upon the role of women in the various modes of pottery-making recorded in the Western Balkans, particularly the area of the former-Yugoslavia. Traditionally, women potters in this region have been largely confined to domestic production, producing for the household rather than for sale, although a number of exceptions are provided from the ethnographic record. Various suggestions are made to account for this, particularly given the diversity of pottery-making in the region and the existence of female potters in commercial industries elsewhere around the Mediterranean. Whilst no secure conclusions are made, it is noted that women in the study region do indeed participate in commercial pottery-making, by preparing clay, firing and selling; activities which are as integral to the production process as forming, but which can be practiced more flexibly around the domestic responsibilities to which women in rural environments tend to be bound.

Key words: Ethnography, Balkan, Pottery, Female


The fieldwork and accompanying oral and documentary research upon which the present paper is based has been undertaken by the author since the 1980s, beginning with a long term, intensive ethno-archaeological study of the potters on Iž (see Carlton 2003), an island in North Dalmatia, and continuing with visits to all the surviving potters of Bosnia, Croatia and western Serbia, as well as fieldwork in other parts of the Balkans, Spain and Portugal. The initial focus on production techniques amongst potters using the hand-wheel has changed over to time to include parallel pottery-making traditions and to consider the role of the (mainly female) consumer in determining the forms and fabrics produced. Having been taught to make pottery whilst carrying out ethnographic research, the author continues to add to the future archaeological record by making and selling pottery each summer in southern Dalmatia and Hercegovina.


The recorded modern pottery-making traditions of the western Balkans are amongst the most diverse in Europe, having developed by a process of invention, invasion and local adaptation and change into a proliferation of forms fully reflective of the long and complex history, not to mention present ethnic diversity of the region. The usual way of rationalising this enormous variety is to select for purposes of classification a single, easily observable characteristic, exemplified by Tomić’s division of pottery making industries in Serbia according to their use of hand-wheel, foot-wheel or non-wheel technologies (Tomić 1983).

Female potters were formerly best-represented within the non-wheel technological tradition; indeed Tomić (1966, 5) refers to this tradition as ‘ženska keramika’ (female pottery), although notes several villages in Kosovo, Serbia and Slavonia where it was practiced by men. Women potters were known at Konavli in southern Dalmatia ( Randić-Barlek 1982, 4), but were mainly located further east, in northern Albania (Onuzi 1978), northern Bulgaria (Bakarelski H, 1974), southern Serbia and Kosovo (Filipović 1951). Associated with this mode of production is the following basic production process: clay was dug and prepared by crushing, rehydrating and mixing with one of a variety of organic or, less commonly, inorganic tempering materials. The forming process involved pinching, drawing and modelling, often on a wooden board, and firing was carried out in a domestic hearth, which meant that some vessels were only partially fired (Filipović 1951). Most of this production was for the personal use of the potter, though in some instances it was carried out for profit (Tomić 1983, 18). Large-scale commercial production by women, as recorded in parts of North Africa and in Anatolia, involving forming aids such as the unfixed, rotating bases noted at Gokeyup near Salihli (Carlton 1989, 60-1, see Fig.1-Fig.3), does not appear to have developed amongst women potters in the Western Balkans, however. Instead, production was on an ad hoc. basis, following the pattern recorded elsewhere in North Africa (see Fig.4) and even, closer to home, in the Scottish Highlands (Holleyman 1947). The main products were shallow dishes – crijepule. – and other domestic wares, often connected with baking.


In some places, as in the micro-region of Rajevići south of Novi Pazar in the former Sandzak region of southern Serbia, domestic pottery-making by women took place alongside (and outlived) commercial coarse-ware production by men using hand-wheel technology. This suggests that the pottery was not merely utilitarian, and that its production and use also involved symbolic meanings, or functions for the women involved. Vincentelli proposes that the activity of pottery-making by women is itself intimately connected with female identity and, by implication, that it does not perform the same role for men where it is a male-dominated activity. Certainly, symbolism in the act of pottery-making and in its products and their uses often seems to be a factor in female domestic pottery which is lacking in male-dominated production in the Western Balkans. Kalmeta cites such symbolic reasons for the survival of a localised female pottery tradition at Konavle, near Dubrovnik; Honeyman (1947) cites similar reasons for the survival of Scottish ‘craggan’ tradition.

Commercial, rather than domestic production on the scale noted amongst women potters in Anatolia and Berber-populated parts of North Africa was carried out in the Western Balkans using non-wheel technology only by men, mainly in parts of Kosovo/south Serbia, Macedonia and Slavonia.1 The production sequence was similar to the above, but greater quantities of raw materials were required, with inorganic tempering agents prevalent, forming techniques more standardised, pots generally larger, and firing done in open fires separate from kitchen hearths (Tomić 1983, 18-21), thereby ensuring that the quality of the finished product was more consistent. The same applied to potters using non-wheel technologies who worked in the Vojvodina until the First World War (Tomić 1983, 20) and in neighbouring Slavonia, near Slavonska Požega, until 1962 (Lechner 1962). Lechner’s exemplary ethnographic description of the latter reveals all stages of production (including the use of moulds for forming bread ovens) to be highly standardised and output high.

Pottery-making using the hand-wheel is practised mainly in central and western Bosnia-Herzegovina, southern Croatia, and western Serbia. It is characterised by the use of a wheel rotating upon a fixed, upwardly-pointed pivot and operated entirely, or almost entirely by hand. A great deal of regional and sub-regional variation occurs at all stages in the production process, from the morphology and size of wheels to the nature of firing process, but fabrics are usually coarse, generally calcite-tempered and firing is usually by means of an open fire, though sometimes in single- or double-chambered kilns. Types of pottery produced vary from place to place, but are mainly baking, cooking and storage wares rather than decorative or table-wares.


Almost all hand-wheel potters are male peasants who depend partially upon pottery for their livelihood, but regard themselves primarily as farmers. The only recorded cases of female potters were at Grič in southern Slovenia (see Fig. 5 - Fig.8) and Rakalj on the Dalmatian Primorje where women potters formed the vessels but were assisted by men in paste preparation and firing.2 Elsewhere, individual female potters are recorded only as exceptions: Popovic (1957, 19) records that a woman at Donji Rujani in north-east Hercegovina continued the work of her deceased husband out of economic necessity; Rajkovic (1956, 3) records that a female potter at Donji Dobrkovići in east Hercegovina produced small vessels ‘faster than her father’; and this author was informed at Veselići in 1993 that one of the last potters at Goli Vrh in west Croatia was a deaf, mute woman. These few cases in Croatia and Hercegovina suggest that single (widowed or unmarried) women turned to pottery-making only out of dire economic necessity. Randić-Barlek (1990, 5) mentions that female potters were also known in similar circumstances in Bosnia, although Kalmeta, in his limited survey of Bosnian pottery-making, came across none (Kalmeta 1954, 155). It is notable, however, that although women tend not to be involved in raw materials procurement and forming, they are often involved in clay processing, removal of pots from the wheel, drying and firing as well as buying and selling (see Fig.9 - Fig.14).


The term ‘foot-wheel’ normally refers to a wheel constituted from an upper working platform and lower fly-wheel which rotates within a fixed bearing below the fly-wheel. It is used, exclusively in some areas, throughout modern Serbia and the Vojvodina (Banski 1975) and parts of Kosovo (Barisic 1989), west and central Macedonia (Orr 1997), north Croatia (Pinter 1935; Kaspar 1978b & 1979a; Uzelac-Bijelić 1981; Randić-Barlek 1982), northern Bosnia (Carlton 1999), and in Slovenia except the Bela Krajina-Ribnica valley areas (Karlovšek 1951).

Foot-wheel technology is always accompanied by the use of updraught kilns and associated with male potters, many of whom operate in urban environments where, lacking connections with the land, they seek to derive all of their income from pottery. The universal use of kilns carries a number of implications for foot-wheel potters, including increased costs in time, materials and space, and the ability to produce harder, glazed products. Where production continues to be based around the household, rather than removed to detached workshops, women tend to be involved in the production process, with pottery formed by men often decorated by women (this is a particular feature of highly decorated wares still produced in Bulgaria and Romania (see Fig.15 - Fig.17). In such cases, as at Troyen in Bulgaria, traditionally each woman (or family group) is said to have had her own recognisable style.


Why so few female potters?

In traditional pottery-making context of Europe, the Near and Middle East and the Mediterranean, pottery-making by women is largely restricted to part-time work in the domestic context, using few tools and producing for home use or limited sale. Large scale professional concerns are often the preserve of men; exclusively so when they involve the use of foot-wheels. Traditions involving the use of hand-wheels occupy the middle ground, in gender terms, with both male and female potters represented.

Both male and female potters were recorded by Soviet ethnographers in the area between Bjelorus and the Northern Carpathians (Bobrinsky 1978; e.g. 41, 126-7 and 149). Male hand-wheel potters work near Vila Real in Portugal, in the Spanish province of Asturias and were active in the early part of the last century in north-west France. However, in Brittany (Franchet 1911), Cyprus (London 1989) and, perhaps most famously, the villages of Moveros and Pereruela in the north of Spain, female potters dominate (see Fig.18).

Using these examples and based on the strong universal tendency for women potters to be associated with the simplest forms of pottery-making technology, portable, usually non-wheel technology and part-time or occasional work, it might be expected that women rather than men would be involved in using the highly portable hand-wheel technologies of the West Balkans which are well-suited to part-time work in the domestic contexts of peasant communities, where both space and time are limited. Indeed, Peacock (1982, 19) arrived at just this conclusion based on the example of Rakalj, which appears to confirm the association between hand-wheel technology and female potters. But this is actually rather exceptional.

What are the reasons for the relative lack of female potters in the Western Balkans? It can certainly be refuted that women lack the strength to carry out the work, as suggested by some male potters; instead, they seem to be checked by a combination of social convention, domestic and agricultural duties. But what then are the differences between the life of a (female) peasant in contemporary Moveros (Northern Spain) or Cyprus compared with the Western Balkans? Perhaps we should view the absence of female potters as an emancipation from the drudgery of domestic toil (pottery-making is rarely – and even then only partially – viewed as an opportunity for artistic expression). Alternatively, we should view pottery-making as a multi-task activity wherein clay preparation, decoration, firing and selling are just as important as forming. In this respect, women continue to play an important role in clay preparation, decorating and selling, activities which can be practiced flexibly, and generally do not require the potter to exclude herself from farming, child-rearing and cooking – activities to which women in predominantly rural societies are universally bound – for long periods.

Pottery-making in the West Balkans is in all respects – socially, spatially and economically – closely tied to the household, with individual production units comprised of individuals working for the exclusive benefit of a single household. Where women are involved exclusively or predominantly in the preparation of hand-built wares, some symbolic element seems to be involved in production. This is lacking when they are part of a team in commercial production. The extent to which women are able to assist with pottery-making activities in such contexts depends upon their obligations to domestic activities and upon the availability of male family members and children as alternative sources of labour. The nature of such assistance is generally regarded as a domestic chore performed within the household context, of no greater or lesser significance than agricultural or domestic tasks.

The prognosis for the survival of pottery-making amongst women in the western Balkans is poor, particularly in the absence of a strong modern tradition of artistic pottery, through which women have in some parts of the world continued to express traditional elements of cultural identity.3 Although there may be a surviving knowledge-base, it seems unlikely that any domestic production survives in the Western Balkans and, although female participation in male-dominated commercial enterprises will continue for as long as these survive, such traditions appear to be dwindling even in their present (relative) strongholds of Romania and Bulgaria. Pottery-making in general and non-wheel work in particular are still stigmatized as unclean ‘low culture’ and considered too representative of the unattractive elements of peasant culture, unlike oral traditions and dress, which are generally promoted. Further afield, the resilience of the non-wheel tradition in Anatolia is notable – albeit in the context of male-dominated commercial enterprise – because it is maintained by the continued strength of demand from consumers, the majority of whom are female. Whether this demand is led by utilitarian or symbolic factors, or a combination of both, is a subject for further research, but arguably provides a potential key to the regeneration of similar traditions in the Western Balkans.


The author’s fieldwork amongst potters in the West Balkans continued, but was severely curtailed by the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s which, in different ways, affected all the surviving West Balkan potters. Some, such as Meho Begović, the last potter at the once extensive pottery-making centre of Višnjica near Sarajevo, were forced by conflict to stop working and did not survive the war. In contrast, pottery-making at Zlakusa in western Serbia, which was outside the war zone but affected by economic sanctions, increased considerably both in numbers of potters and total output as consumers turned to traditional pottery with the absence of reliable power supplies. Others, in Bosnia and Dalmatia, cut off from clay supplies or markets during the war, were forced to cease production during the hostilities but resumed thereafter. These potters found a ready market in the immediate aftermath of the war, since many households wished to replace pots lost or broken during the war, or were forced by circumstance to cook on the open hearth. In 1994 the author accompanied a potter and his wife from recently-liberated Potravlje, near Sinj in Dalmatia while they peddled pots in the vicinity of Sinj and Trilj, the pots being bartered for goods rather than money due to the paucity of money in the post-war economy. The exchange was carried out for measures of grain between the potter’s wife, who as well as selling also assists with clay preparation and firing, and women in the households visited.

Pottery-making during and immediately after the war found an important role in a time of need, as did other aids to self-sufficiency which were pulled from general and localised reservoirs of residual traditional skills, held by memory and tradition within the community, and revived to meet demand. However, in common with most of these, such as the revived use of small-scale horizontal water mills which flourished during the war, pottery-making since the late 1990s has resumed the decline into which it fell during the middle of the last century, although the few remaining producers still find a market amongst pockets of consumers and, perhaps increasingly, in restaurants selling traditional food, such as meat cooked ispod peka or sač (under a baking cover, see Fig.19-Fig.20) , or slow-cooked stews such as Bosanski lonac. (Bosnian pot). The gradual development of tourism in Bosnia, albeit almost exclusively confined to Mostar and Počitelj, within easy range of the coast, has also encouraged the potters of Lješevo near Sarajevo to produce decorative wares in addition to the usual utilitarian range



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  1. Tomić (1966, 17) lists the following locations: Djakovica in Kosovo; Kotraža, Vrnjići, Rujište and villages around Pirot and Negotin in Serbia; and Novo Selo, Golo Brdo, Daranovac, Gradište and Cernik in Slavonia. back to text
  2. The most recent potters at Rakalj have been male, and it is far from certain that male potters did not take part in vessel forming along with women in the past. However, it is certain that female potters were formerly active there. back to text
  3. Interestingly, Vincentelli notes that although women gained access to the wheel – principally through the promotion of pottery as art – in the last century, she feels they are also in the forefront of the reaction against using it. back to text

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

Barvas Ware • Issue 10