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date: 24 March 2019

Ceramics, Foodways, and Consumption: Methods

Summary and Keywords

Analysis of ceramics in archaeological contexts has provided a range of information regarding African history. Archaeologists have approached ceramics as a craft as well as an indicator of identity and status. The Africanist focus on the technological development of ceramic manufacture and production has taken several forms. The most notable are (1) the origins of ceramic production, (2) the spread and independent invention of this technology and regional styles through typological analysis, and (3) technological change related to the identity of the producers and consumers including changing dietary practices over time. The various arguments put forth for the first production and use of ceramics in different regions of the continent are connected to the exploitation of available resources such as fish as well as the rise of agricultural production. Following the appearance and technical history of ceramics in various regions of the continent, a focus on foodways and regional cuisine has placed ceramics at the forefront of interpretation.

Keywords: ceramics, typology, ethnoarchaeology, chaîne opératoire, crafting, cuisine

Approaches to Ceramics and African Archaeology

Ceramics are among the most ubiquitous artifact types recovered from archaeological sites throughout the African continent. As an artifact class, they provide a wealth of information about African communities ranging from adaptation to the natural environment to social divisions and gender norms. Archaeologists have focused on the origins and development of ceramic technology tied to various subsistence strategies and have used these as a “type find” to denote culture contact and the rise of complexity. More recently, ceramics have been approached as one facet of foodways, being viewed as an integral part of cuisine and indicator of social organization.

Ceramic Origins

To understand the relationship between food and ceramics, the origins of ceramic production1 in Africa must be considered. For the most part, the origins of pottery throughout the world has primarily been linked to sedentism, though it is recognized that it varied across time and space.2 Archaeological evidence suggests that ceramic production first emerged on the continent between the end of the 10th and beginning of the 9th millennium bce according C14 (radiocarbon dating).3 The earliest ceramics have been identified in the Nile Valley and parts of the central and eastern regions of the Sahara with an expansion into areas of modern Sudan.4

Because of the unique environmental zones that constitute the African continent, including many marginal ones, the history of food domestication and the associated material culture do not follow a single pattern. There, unlike in much of the world, the earliest food producers were pastoralists not agriculturalists.5 Additionally, communities relied more on foraging for longer periods of time. These varied subsistence strategies necessarily influenced the trajectory of ceramic production and use. As such, ceramic production is not necessarily a natural next step for sedentary communities, but in some instances preceded them. Each of these initial zones of production led to distinct traditions in style and technical choice that persist today between ceramics from the northern Sahel-Sudanic and southern savanna-forest regions of Africa based on the aesthetic nature of the sherds recovered.6 For example, by the 3rd millennium ce, we find distinct ceramic traditions that have been identified by archaeologists in Mali as being discernable from neighboring areas in both aesthetic and technical style.7 The Phase I ceramics identified at Djenné-djeno are semi-refined grog (i.e., crushed ceramic) tempered wares in the form of open and closed hollow vessels with a high prevalence of twine impressions.8

Ceramics, Foodways, and Consumption: MethodsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Low-fired grog-tempered earthenware ceramic pot rim from Berefet, The Gambia, 19th century. National Centre for Arts and Culture in The Gambia.

Photo by Liza Gijanto.

Those from the southern savanna and forest zones are also characterized by a course grog-tempered paste, but everted rims are more common and are combined with relief or grooved decorative motifs.9 The question here is why these differences exist and if any are related to the foods consumed, or more specifically the mode of subsistence practiced.

The appearance of ceramics in the archaeological record is seen as an indicator of food production by some, while others question why ceramics indicate this rather than more intensive exploitation of resources. Ceramic use and manufacture are seen among nearly all subsistence groups, though agriculturalists with higher degrees of social stratification and larger populations do tend toward both greater ceramic use and variation in wares. These also tend to be the communities with designated potters and other craftpersons. Conversely, research among archaeologists and anthropologists in Africa has revealed that many small-scale groups that engage in some degree of nomadism in general tend to not be pottery producers.10 As can be expected, notable exceptions can be found. For example, in the Sahelian region, the origin of ceramics has been tied to the exploitation of aquatic resources during the Holocene.11 Sadr and Sampson have made a convincing argument for the independent invention of thin-bodied ceramics in southern Africa among hunter-gathers prior to the Early Iron Age (EIA) migration of agriculturalists.12 They posit that these wares, which are stylistically (thinner and unburnished) and technologically different from the EIA wares, may be imitating ostrich eggshell containers used by hunter-gatherers prior to the adoption of pottery. This interpretation is in line with the earlier hypothesis put forth by Childe that the first ceramics were imitations of more “natural” vessels derived from gourds, bladders, skins, and skulls.

Pastoralist communities’ use and at times manufacture of ceramics is significant considering the nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle associated with keeping cattle in different regions of Africa. The rise of pastoralism as a niche subsistence activity varies and has been associated with climatic changes throughout Africa. It is argued that in Saharan Africa during the early Holocene, sedentary potting communities of hunter-gatherers and fishers became nomadic cattle herders.13 Thus, as subsistence strategies changed, crafting remained and likely was altered in subtle ways to accommodate new practices.

Despite these findings, there is a general consensus against pottery manufacture being the norm within highly mobile groups. This is based on the sedentary time required to produce pots, and the effort/energy needed to carry these wares as determined from ethnographic research. It is assumed that there is little reward for production among low-population groups as any economic benefit will not outweigh the investment in time and labor. However, this argument assumes isolation among these groups. Rather, it is likely that those communities engaged in ceramic production were part of regional distribution networks that likely traded with communities practicing different forms of subsistence. By engaging in economies of scale, potters are able to reduce the cost of production by serving their neighbors in that they produce more pots, not fewer, making the time and resources dedicated to the craft worth more in economic terms. This practice also allows for a small number of specialists to emerge, creating a regional style with regard to form and aesthetic.

Approaches to the Material Culture of Foodways

The term “foodways” has been applied by archaeologists as an all-encompassing word that implies an understanding of the relationship between food and the material culture used to transform it into a meal. The term also refers to the social meaning that food carries.14 This, as well as the concept of cuisine as it has been applied to African contexts, often does not include the process of creating the raw materials (e.g., grain, meat, vegetables), and storing them prior to food preparation.15 Nor is the production of ceramics and other implements used during each stage of preparation and consumption seen as part of foodways. When these are considered, however, the intricate relationship between ceramic production and use as part of the entire chain of food consumption is better understood. In particular, a recent shift by some archaeologists from economic to social questions surrounding foodways has ushered in a new focus on the connections between crafting the implements associated with food and culinary practice.16 This includes how the structure of a meal can affect technical choice in ceramic construction.

The most notable studies of ceramics and foodways examine ceramics in conjunction with faunal and botanical remains, including chemical analysis when possible, to discern not only the overall composition of meals, but the relationships between the food consumed and material culture used to prepare and serve it. Viewing ceramic data within the context of available food resources and styles of cookery allows archaeologists to move beyond functional analysis of ceramics.17 In order to place ceramics within the proper context, it is important to draw on all available data sources. An example of this is the work of Gijanto and Walshaw, who interpret shifts in ceramic manufacture using faunal and botanical remains as well as available documentary and oral-history sources for 17th- to 19th-century Juffure, The Gambia.18 They conclude that changes in ceramic paste recipes, specifically the shift from sand to oyster-shell temper during the height of the Atlantic trade in the 18th century, was a byproduct of feasting events that included large quantities of oysters. To get to this interpretation, typological and attribute analysis of ceramics was done in conjunction with an examination of the chaîne opératoire , and recognition of technical choice by the potter that diverged from accepted practice.

Ceramics, Foodways, and Consumption: MethodsClick to view larger

Figure 2. Low-fired grog-/sand-tempered earthenware pot rim from Juffure, The Gambia, late 18th–19th century. National Centre for Arts and Culture in The Gambia.

Photo by Liza Gijanto.

These methodologies in addition to ethnoarchaeology form the primary toolkit for archaeologists seeking a more holistic study of ceramics and foodways in Africa.

Typology and the “Big Sequence”

Africanist archaeologists tend toward regional studies involving large-area surveys that generate high quantities of ceramic sherds. Regional surveys are undertaken because of the generally untapped nature of much of the continent in terms of archaeological investigation. This often necessitates the development of a new ceramic typology for a region that has yet to receive intensive archaeological study. As a form of classification, ceramics that undergo typological analysis are sorted into mutually exclusive categories based on a number of technical and aesthetic primary and secondary attributes designated by the researcher (or researchers).19 For Africa, the attributes that tend to dominate typologies are aesthetic in nature such as decorative motifs and surface treatments. Other primary attributes that are considered include paste recipes (temper types and ratios to clay), color, and firing practices. Secondary attributes usually include vessel shape or form as different types or styles will be used to create a pot with the same utilitarian function. Ceramic sherds are grouped as “like kinds” that contain all or a majority of the same attributes. The types are then subject to spatial analysis and placed within chronological models. The goal is to determine when and where the different ceramic traditions were made and used creating a long-term narrative of a region.

A major critique of traditional typological analysis is that there is an overemphasis on style as a direct representation of people or culture. As such, technical choice and the actual use or intended purpose of the ceramics are not considered. Typologies that claim a culture (i.e., these pots equal these people) have proven problematic throughout Africa. While necessary, ceramic studies that focus on typology have been criticized for being limited and unable to fully define culture and all its aspects (i.e., subsistence, settlement, economy, and a host of other large-scale characteristics), leading some to argue that an “archaeological culture” defined by ceramics is meaningless.20 Simple typologies that focus on stylistic change over time do not account for all aspects of the ceramics that are connected to societal structure including individual and collective identities.21 This is seen in most classification systems that highlight decorative motifs and to a lesser extent those that address technological choices.22 Even with these limitations, the simple descriptive nature of typologies does allow for cross-assemblage comparison at a basic level. The goal, then, becomes moving beyond this to consider the complex relationship among ceramics, food, and society.

Alternative classification systems to a strict typological approach include S. McIntosh’s23 classification system highlighting attributes over types developed at Djenné-djeno, Mali, and later applied or adapted to locales throughout the Senegambia.24 This system does not designate types, though some variants do overlay these by recording all the same attributes highlighted by S. McIntosh as meaningful.25 The focus of McIntosh’s approach is on a number of attributes related to the physical appearance of the ceramic (i.e., thickness and decoration), technical aspects (i.e., paste composition), and form. Those who utilize this system are able to draw some basic conclusions regarding the relationship among food processing, consumption, storage, and potting.

The relationship between ceramics and food beyond utilitarian needs is generally overlooked in typological analysis. The presentation of ceramic or other material classes tends toward seriation of stylistic change marking shifts in local production, contact, or other “events” that denote the transition from one age to another along a sequence of time. What is missed in such “first phase” analysis projects are the relationships between ceramics and other materials that provide insight into foodways.

While a typology focuses on grouping ceramics with shared characteristics, seriation analysis places these within a linear framework to identify change over time. Many classification schemes for African ceramics tend to combine typology and seriation in the final reporting of an assemblage. Big sequence, or age, systems place material culture within a chain of measured time—largely lithic materials and ceramics in African contexts—into a series of periods, or cultures occurring in relatively neat succession in relatively bounded geographical areas as designated by the researcher. Periodization in African contexts primarily includes the Stone and Iron Ages with further divisions within each depending on the region. While it is fair to argue that typological projects are necessary in areas where little to no archaeological investigation has occurred, these typologies should be used as the starting not the end point of archaeological inquiry.

Chaîne opératoire and Life-Cycle Analysis

At times paired with typological analysis,26 the application of a life cycle or an object biography approach that highlights the connections among the point of manufacture, use, and discarding of objects has proven useful.27 This, and the chaîne opératoire proposed by Lemonnier after the work of Leroi-Gourhan as applied to ceramic assemblages, examines the life cycle of the ceramic with an emphasis on the choices made throughout the production process.28 This includes how these choices are linked to the broader socioeconomic context in which production occurs.29 Similar to the pitfalls of typological analysis, “identifying technological behavior is of course not an end in itself; it needs to be interpreted and situated within a cultural framework.”30 In this instance, we must evaluate the technical choices made by potters as well as the finished ceramic vessel within the context of subsistence practices and cooking. Until recently, applications of this concept to ceramics in Africa have focused on the link between technical choice and style.31

In an attempt to move beyond these limitations of typological studies, a team of international researchers began the “Ceramic and Society Project” based at the University of Belgium under the supervision of Peter de Maret. Fieldwork in Africa directed by Olivier Gosselain and Alexandre Smith focused on two objectives: (1) to discern the meaning of style throughout the production process and acts of consumption and (2) to develop new analytical techniques for archaeologists focused on reconstructing past ceramic manufacturing techniques.32 The researchers combined ethnographic data with material analysis of archaeological finds to determine which choices made throughout the chaîne opératoire were the most heavily guided by cultural factors. The result of their investigation has led them to caution archaeologists not to make too direct a connection between technical choice and environmental adaptations. Rather, their work with living potters supported the conclusions of Sackett that technical choice is more often than not something that has been enculturated, as a tradition passed down from teacher to pupil.33 However, the project’s focus on the technological process did not address the influence of diet and cooking practices.

The chaîne opératoire approach to ceramic analysis has the potential to provide insights into the connections between technical choice and meals. If, as Gosselain and his colleagues assert, production is most heavily impacted by cultural tradition and potters in Africa are predominantly women, a logical next step to pursue is to determine how they create their pots for cooking and whether the kinds of foods they cook are considered during the production phase. One point in the chain where we do see the connection between food and technical choice is temper selection. For example, many potters will use chaff from recently harvested crops as a tempering agent. Thus, a byproduct of food production is incorporated into pots. Similar arguments have been made for other refuse from meals including shells.34 The examination of ceramics must be paired with findings from faunal and botanical analysis including evidence of cooking practices (i.e., alteration to the bone from heat, boiling, and butchery practices).


Many archaeologists working in Africa utilize ethnographic data to interpret the archaeological material they have collected.35 Others use ethnographic methods as their primary form of investigation under the guise of ethnoarchaeology.36 Ethnoarchaeological study was a key part of the “Ceramics in Society” project discussed above, and has been utilized by archaeologists in Africa to investigate both ceramics and diet since the mid-20th century. As traditionally practiced, its purpose is “to aid in the interpretation of archaeological remains: to start from archaeological data and to determine as much as possible about associated behavior.”37 The main theorists and practitioners of this subdiscipline developed their methods in order to produce analogies to interpret the distant past. Many sought to understand hominin behavior by observing societies they felt were still living in a way that resembled our ancestors and some of the earliest humans.38 Because of this, as well as the narrow focus of many research questions, and the general lack of training archaeologists receive in ethnographic methodology, one of the most recognized practitioners of ceramic ethnoarchaeology in Africa, Gosselain, has rejected the subdiscipline.

Studies either characterized as ethnoarchaeological or employing some ethnographic inquiry focused on ceramics have sought to understand the links between a given potter’s identity and style using ethnographic interviews and observations to uncover the intent behind different decorative motifs.39 These archaeologists use field methods traditionally employed by cultural anthropologists such as living and working within a community or communities for a year or more. A significant portion of this time is spent conducting participant observation. For those studying production, this entails watching the entire process and noting how different ceramics are made. This is often paired with a series of interviews designed specifically for the potters, cooks, and others using ceramic vessels to get at their intent and understanding of the vessels’ use and meaning. The information gathered during this process is then used to interpret archaeological findings. Many, but not all, of the archaeologists engaged in these projects also carry out archaeological excavations from which they develop their ethnoarchaeological research agendas. A major critique of this form of research is that it is narrow in its scope, and often the theory guiding the methods (middle range theory) presupposes the outcome. One way many archaeologists have tried to move beyond these shortcomings is to draw on multiple datasets situating ethnographic observations within long-term studies.

While most ethnoarchaeological studies focus on one aspect of material life and are criticized for removing their observations from the broader cultural contexts, a few studies have sought to combine observations made regarding food production and cooking with those related to ceramics to answer this critique. For example, archaeologists have largely concentrated their inquiries into the relationship between pottery and food on agrarian communities in Eastern and Western Africa. Interviews and observations in one or multiple villages that are related to the same ethnic or tribal group, usually with direct relationships between them whether they are social, economic, or political, are the norm. One such study examines the historical spread of bread produced from different grains and the associated baking technology used. The researchers focused on ceramic griddles as part of larger clay ovens to bake bread from grains not containing gluten.40 Between 1996 and 1999, data on ovens and griddles was collected from fifty-five households in the village of Adi Ainawalid in highland Ethiopia. This included documenting the structure, size, and use of these objects to bake various kinds of bread through observation, interviews, and direct measurements of the objects.41 In addition to this, they conducted fourteen heating experiments to determine the temperatures needed to bake each bread observing the fuel used. However, though they seek to understand changes in griddles from archaeological to modern examples, their focus is on griddle use is not complemented by a study of griddle manufacture.

Other studies have expanded the scope of inquiry from just food or just ceramic production by highlighting the relationship between the two utilizing the chaîne opératoire approach as well as a focus on technical choice. For example, Arthur conducted an ethnoarchaeological study among the Gamo of Ethiopia in order to understand the innovations observed in groundstone and pottery technology during the Neolithic associated with processing grains. The individuals who produce these items are part of designated castes.42 The tools these lower castes produce are used to make luxury foods, the consumption of which is restricted to higher-status castes. Arthur examines the production of these objects among one caste and use within another by looking at the life cycle, or chaîne opératoire, of the pottery and groundstones. By combining this approach with ethnoarchaeological fieldwork, he is able to “reconstruct the entire sequence of an artifact from procurement to discard.”43 In a similar vein, Arthur also conducted ethnographic observations of use-alteration on ceramics by recording degradation of the objects. This study included a life-cycle analysis of pottery “to explore how pots move though different social and economic contexts from the time they are produced to their eventual discard.”44 His focus was on alterations to the surface of vessels related to fermentation of grains for beer.

The examples presented thus far all address ceramics and agrarian societies. Grillo provides an alternative study by examining pottery used by the pastoral Samburu of Kenya.45 She found that the Samburu view crafting as the occupation of poor people, and therefore do not make pots, but rely on their neighbors, the Dorobo hunter-gatherers, to acquire them. The Samburu used just two pot forms—one for cooking and one for storing meat. The Dorobo had two additional forms—one for ritual honey-beer and one for water. She concluded through ethnographic research that Samburu use of pottery was tied to seasonal fluctuations including a heavier reliance on pots during periods of drought to store meat rather than milk and ghee. She suggests that when examining pastoralists in the archaeological record, it is important to consider the local ecology including patterns of drought and scarcity when interpreting the use of pots by such groups in the past.

In addition to the above studies focused on the production of a single food type, more recent work has tried to understand the relationship between ceramics and overall diet pairing archaeological and ethnographic data to present a long-term analysis of food security. These researchers seek to understand both change and continuity over time. Logan and Cruz conducted fieldwork in Banda, Ghana, employing the concept of taskscapes to the relationship among crafting, farming, and food preparation from the 18th to 21st century.46 Cruz focused her ethnographic work on pottery-producing and -consuming villages, while Logan’s work addressed food and food-production practices. Their combined ethnographic work on farming, food preparation, and potting revealed that “patterning in both temporalities and techniques was related to the gendered nature of the tasks.”47 This information was paired with that from the archaeological record from household contexts. Botanical and ceramic remains in conjunction with fauna and cooking areas when encountered were analyzed in light of findings from ethnographic inquiries to reveal that shifts in ceramic size and morphology over time coincided with changes in food sources. Thus, rather than using ethnographic data to simply elucidate archaeological findings, they present a long-term study of change treating each dataset equally.

The examples discussed above demonstrate the range of inquiry that practitioners of ethnoarchaeology on ceramics and African foodways have engaged in. Africanist have lauded these projects as a means consider the different social relationships that influence production that are not obvious in the archaeological record.48 A challenge in this arena is the relatively rapid shift from exclusive use of ceramics, to the replacement of many of these vessels with imported metalwares throughout the continent.49 This makes ethnographic observation impossible in many parts of the continent, rendering archaeologists reliant on oral testimony and written accounts of travelers, missionaries, colonial officials, and others.

The Use of Historical Sources

Depending on the region and time period, archaeologists will have a wide range of sources available to them including written and oral-historical sources. Many studies based in Western and Southern Africa dating to the era of the Atlantic trade (c. mid-15th to mid-19th century) utilize historical documents and oral histories when available. Malan demonstrates the wealth of information about households, including meals that can be gathered from probate inventories.50 While her focus was not on foodways, information regarding household gardens, ceramics, and other items related to meals were noted from free black households in the 18th-century Cape.51 While Malan’s study demonstrates the range of information that can be gleaned from historical documents, other researchers have combined these with archaeological data to present a more holistic narrative of this period. As previously mentioned, the study completed by Gijanto and Walshaw utilized British Trading Company logbooks and travel accounts describing local meals and exchange of foodstuffs to interpret faunal, botanical, and ceramic data from Juffure, The Gambia.52 Company logs listed the purchase of grains and livestock from local villages on the Gambia River. The relative absence of many of these from the archaeological record except in contexts analogous to feasting suggests that daily meals were impacted by British demand for certain foodstuffs.53

Researchers working on different time periods in East Africa have also utilized written sources. Pope, beginning with Haaland and Edwards’ work on the “porridge and pot” tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa, examines the culinary crossroad that existed in the Middle Nile between this tradition and the “bread-and-oven” cuisine of the Near East.54 Using epigraphic evidence from Nubia, he expands previous interpretations of archaeological data related to Sahelian cuisine. His translations revealed a variety of foodstuffs given as offerings including pots filled with a range of foodstuffs including “soaked bread” and other dishes that were part of the “porridge-and-pot” cuisine. The epitaphs provide insight to how Nubians and Egyptians viewed each other’s culinary traditions.55

Residue Analysis

Residue analysis takes many forms, but collectively has been undertaken to determine the types of foods consumed as well as the origins of specific types of production associated with different subsistence practices. This analysis is highly specialized and conducted in partnership with chemists or by archaeologists with significant training in chemistry. This analysis is also costly. But, certain narrow questions like “were individuals processing meat or milk in these pots” can be effectively answered. For example, archaeologists focused on the origins and spread of pastoralism have utilized stable-carbon-isotope analysis and gas-chromatography to analyze animal-fat residues found on ceramics. One such study led by Dunne identified a range of lipid biomarkers and alkanoic acids that represent “unequivocal evidence for extensive processing of dairy products in pottery vessels in the Libyan Sahara” around 5200–3800 bce.56 These findings confirm the importance of milk in pastoral communities of the region and the need for ceramics to process it. Other studies like that headed by Patrick have identified fat residue on pottery used by hunter-gathers in the Cape, South Africa.57 Most studies similar to these focus on the food eaten and the vessels used to process them but rarely incorporate these data into broader studies of foodways.

Ceramics and Foodways

The social power of food has been described by anthropologists and archaeologists within numerous contexts including public displays such as feasts.58 It has been asserted that “economic exchange creates value” and that “value is embodied in commodities that are exchanged.”59 Food is thus seen as the ultimate form of “embodied material culture” because it is literally made to become a part of people through bodily consumption; access to this, and the identity of the producer as well as the consumer, determine the symbolic nature of the meal.60 The meal is not just the food served and consumed, but also the material culture it is presented and prepared in. Used in these contexts, ceramics take on a role beyond the utilitarian. Within the broader scope of foodways, all the potential situations where food and ceramics are present must be scrutinized to understand the relationship between the two within African communities. For example, Haaland links the rise of complexity to material culture related to food and drink:

One would therefore expect that food and drink with the activities and objects involved in their preparation and consumption communicate different symbolic meanings and have different politico-economic consequences in contexts of social equality versus contexts of social hierarchy.61

The situations in which foods is served—as a meal or otherwise—are predicated by the social norms of the society in which the foods are produced. This includes who is able to participate in the tasks that culminate in food consumption. Examining ceramics in isolation ignores the influence of various spheres of interaction. By analyzing these objects as part of foodways, changes such as those in form or technical make-up are better understood when sources like botanical and faunal remains are interpreted in tandem with ceramics.

One way in which power, social status, and other forms of identity are expressed through cuisine is feasting. With elaborate, often large-scale, meals, the presentation as well as consumption of particular foods is heavily laden with meaning.62 Feasting in African contexts has been identified across time and space.63 Researchers have noted its use as a means to extend or establish power and assert social standing.64 Not only the food consumed (both the type and how it is prepared), but also the potential connections among ceramic design, form, and decoration, are considered meaningful.65 Thus, in feasting contexts, the literal consumption of the food as well as the experience of the feast created through material culture are important.

A meal involves the types of food selected for consumption, how it is prepared, and how it is served. Much of the production related to ceramics and cooking is highly gendered in Africa. It largely falls within the domain of women and the domestic sphere, though the scale of production and for whom the pots are being produced varies regionally.66 The role of women is important in this case because it is they who also control the meals. Women and young girls are largely responsible for going to market, maintaining gardens, and cooking two to three daily meals. Men’s involvement is restricted to crop production, though much of this is often sold or traded away from the compound.67

One example of the decisions made by women as both potters and cooks is seen in the ceramic assemblages from various clove plantations in Zanzibar. Croucher surveyed two areas on the island of Pemba and two on the larger island of Ungula identifying sixty-four sites associated with former clove plantations.68 As is the case with much of African archaeology, the most abundant find was ceramics. Analysis revealed that potters associated with these plantations produced a single dominant pot style that was used for both cooking and serving meals. Furthermore, this pot was found in multiple contexts associated with the enslaved, free laborers, and property owners. This suggests that all residents of the plantations were taking part in comparable foodways. The Zanzibar ceramics highlight a shared sense of daily meals, whereas in many contexts with rigid social stratification we find food, and the vessels associated with it, used to mark distinction. On a broader scale, the “porridge-and-pot” tradition of the Sahel defined by Haaland also demonstrates the influence that the form of cooking has on ceramic design.69

“Luxury” Contexts

Meals are just one way in which food is consumed. When describing the relationship between food and culture, Mary Douglas noted that in order to truly understand it, researchers had to “rectify [their] thinking about food . . . to recognize how food enters the moral and social intentions of individuals.”70 A focus on luxury or exotic foods highlights the social nature of food in all its forms.71 However, “luxury” is hard to identify in the archaeological record. Rather, what we do find are the exotic or imported foodstuffs that are assumed to be highly valuable because of the difficulty in acquiring them.72 Other forms of luxury are local foodstuffs with restricted access that require specialized tools in order to be prepared and served.73

Discussion of the Literature

Methodological approaches to ceramics and foodways in Africa combine those developed for archaeology like typological classification with those of ethnographers (participant observation and interviews), historians (documentary analysis and oral history interviews), and even chemists. Many of these, including the excavation or collection of archaeological materials, require specialized training. This is also true of laboratory analysis where archaeologists will specialize in a particular material type—fauna, botanicals, and even ceramics. As such, a historian cannot easily gather primary data outside his or her specialty. However, because a holistic study of ceramics and foodways requires multiple datasets acquired through a range of disciplines, it is possible for practitioners of each to engage in the literature in order to situate it within their own field.

Typological and attribute analysis remain at the forefront of ceramic studies in Africa. In portions of the continent that have received little archaeological attention, this is a necessary step in describing material culture and will be paired with seriation studies. However, it is imperative that archaeologists resist the urge to state that the ceramic types identified correspond to bounded ethnic groups as was the practice in the past74 and a primary reason why many like S. McIntosh have shifted their analysis to focus on attributes alone. Another recent change in typological analysis is the greater emphasis placed on technological rather than simply aesthetic characteristics of the ceramics.

Once collections have been categorized, the theoretical lens applied to these now includes approaches that take into consideration the social aspects of production (i.e., the chaîne opératoire and life-cycle analysis). This includes placing production and use of ceramics within studies of foodways in an effort to understand how diet influences this process. Some of the most vocal proponents of this approach utilize a range of methods and sources including ethnography and historiography.75 Moving beyond the limitations of traditional ethnoarchaeology, archaeologists focused on foodways with an emphasis on ceramics combine data from ethnographic inquiry, archaeological excavations and collection, and use of written and oral histories to present a more holistic view of the past.76

Primary Sources

Unlike other areas of archaeology, few primary sources regarding collections and methodology are available to Africanists. Rather, the onus is on the researcher and student to directly contact researchers and national museums to gain access to collections. Many ceramic collections are held by universities in the United States and Europe where the excavating archaeologist has an affiliation. If permits are not given to transport these collections, they will be housed at African institutions such as the IFAN in Senegal. This is the same for faunal and botanical collections. Larger institutions like the Smithsonian, Field Museum in Chicago, British Museum in London, and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris have comparative and field collections collected during the 19th and 20th centuries that may prove useful but often lack provenience. A final hindrance is the researchers must overcome is that the scholarship coming out of Africa by African scholars including field reports rarely makes it into academic literature, nor is it easy to acquire without direct contact with agencies, universities, and researchers.

Secondary sources such as archives and ethnographic literature for the continent are easier to come by, as many are housed in archives of former colonial powers and Western universities.

Further Reading

Arthur, John W. “Culinary Crafts and Foods in Southwestern Ethiopia: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Gamo Groundstones and Pottery.” African Archaeological Review 31 (2014): 131–168.Find this resource:

Ashley, Ceri Z. “Towards a Socialised Archaeology of Ceramics in Great Lakes Africa.” African Archaeological Review 27 (2010): 135–163.Find this resource:

Cruz, M. Dores. “‘Pots Are Pots, Not People’: Material Culture and Ethnic Identity in the Banda Area (Ghana), Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Azania 46.3 (2011): 336–357.Find this resource:

Gijanto, Liza. “Socio-economic Interaction and Ceramic Aesthetic: Understanding West African Ceramic Production and Use in Context.” Azania 46.3 (2011): 250–268.Find this resource:

Gokee, Cameron D., and Amanda Logan. “Comparing Craft and Culinary Practice in Africa: Themes and Perspectives.” African Archaeological Review 31 (2014): 87–104.Find this resource:

Gosselain, Oliver P. “Ceramics in Africa.” In Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, 464–476. New York: Springer, 2008.Find this resource:

Haaland, Randi. “Porridge and Pot, Bead and Oven: Foodways and Symbolism In Africa and the Near East from the Neolithic to the Present.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17.2 (2007): 165–182.Find this resource:

Haaland, Randi. “Changing Food Ways as Indicators of Emerging Complexity in Sudanese Nubia: From Neolithic Agropastoralists to the Meroitic Civilisation.” Azania 47.3 (2012): 327–342.Find this resource:

Hassan, Fekri A., ed. Droughts, Food and Culture: Ecological Change and Food Security in Africa’s Later Prehistory. London: University College London, 2002.Find this resource:

Lyons, Diane. “Integrating African Cuisines: Rural Cuisine and Identity in Tigrey, Highland Ethiopia.” Journal of Social Archaeology 7.3 (2007): 346–371.Find this resource:

MacLean, Rachel, and Timothy Insoll. “The Social Context of Food Technology in Iron Age Gao, Mali.” World Archaeology 31.1 (1999): 78–92.Find this resource:

Sadr, Karim, and Garth Sampson. “Through Thick and Thin: Early Pottery in Southern Africa.” Journal of African Archaeology 4.2 (2006): 235–252.Find this resource:


(1.) Ceramic manufacture refers to the actual process of making a ceramic object, whereas production includes the social, political, and other contexts in which manufacture occurs. Phillip J. Arnold, “Working without a Net: Recent Trends in Ceramic Ethnoarchaeology,” Journal of Archaeological Research 8.2 (2000): 106–107.

(2.) John W. Hoopes and William K. Barnett, “The Shape of Early Pottery Studies,” in The Emergence of Pottery: Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies, eds. William K. Barnett and John W. Hoopes (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 2.

(3.) Eric Huysecom, Eric, M. Rasse, L. Lespez, K. Neumann, A. Fahmy, A. Ballouche, S. Ozainne, et al., “The Emergence of Pottery in Africa During the Tenth Millennium Cal BC: New Evidence from Ounjougou (Mali),” Antiquity 83.322 (2009): 906.

(4.) F. Jesse “Early Ceramics in the Sahara and the Nile Valley,” in Cultural Markers in the Later Prehistory of Northeastern Africa and Recent Research, eds. L. Krzyzaniak, K. Kroeper, and M. Kobusiewicz, Studies in African Archaeology (Poznan: Poznan Archaeological Museum, 2003), 40–42; David W. Phillipson, African Archaeology, 3d ed. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 159.

(5.) Fiona Marshall and Elisabeth Hildebrand, “Cattle before Crops: The Beginnings of Food Production in Africa,” Journal of World Prehistory 16.2 (2002): 99–143.

(6.) Barbara Frank, Mande Potters and Leatherworkers: Art and Heritage in West Africa (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 20.

(7.) Technical style as defined by archaeologists involves all of the decisions made by the potter including clay and temper selection, the method used to construct the pot, how the pot is fired, and the decoration applied.

(8.) Susan Keech McIntosh, Excavations at Jenne-Jeno, Hambarketolo, and Kaniana (Inland Niger Delta, Mali), the 1981 Season (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 212.

(9.) Frank, Mande Potters and Leatherworkers, 20.

(10.) Dean E. Arnold, Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

(11.) J.E. Sutton, “The Aquatic Civilization of Middle Africa,” Journal of African History 15 (1974): 527–546.

(12.) Karim Sadr and Garth Sampson, “Through Thick and Thin: Early Pottery in Southern Africa,” Journal of African Archaeology 4.2 (2006): 235–252.

(13.) S. di Lernia, “Dry Climatic Events and Cultural Trajectories: Adjusting Middle Holocene Pastoral Economy of the Libyan Sahara,” in Droughts, Food and Culture: Ecological Change and Food Security in Africa’s Later Prehistory, ed. Fekri A. Hassan (London: University College London, 2002), 225–250.

(14.) For a detailed summary see Katheryn Twiss, “The Archaeology of Food and Social Diversity,” Journal of Archaeological Research 20 (2012): 357–395.

(15.) See Diane Lyons, “Integrating African Cuisines: Rural Cuisine and Identity in Tigrey, Highland Ethiopia,” Journal of Social Archaeology 7.3 (2007): 346–371.

(16.) See Cameron D. Gokee and Amanda Logan, “Comparing Craft and Culinary Practice in Africa: Themes and Perspectives,” African Archaeological Review 31 (2014): 88.

(17.) Ceri Z. Ashley, “Towards a Socialised Archaeology of Ceramics in Great Lakes Africa,” African Archaeological Review 27 (2010): 139–142.

(18.) Liza Gijanto and Sarah Walshaw, “Ceramic Production and Dietary Changes at Juffure, Gambia,” African Archaeological Review 31.2 (2014): 265–297.

(19.) W. Adams, “Archaeological Classification: Theory versus Practice,” Antiquity 40 (1988): 44.

(20.) For example, Innocent Pikirayi, “Taking Southern African Ceramic Studies into the Twenty-first Century: A Zimbabwean Perspective,” African Archaeological Review 16.3 (1999): 188.

(21.) Sarah Croucher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, “People, Not Pots: Locally Produced Ceramics and Identity on the Nineteenth-Century East African Coast,” International Journal f African Historical Studies 39.1 (2006): 114–115.

(22.) See Garth Sampson, Tim J. G. Hart, Deborah L. Wallsmith, and Jimmy D. Blagg, “The Ceramic Sequence in the Upper Seacow Valley: Problems and Implications,” The South African Archaeological Bulletin 44.149 (1989): 3–16.

(23.) Susan Keech McIntosh, “Pottery,” in Excavations at Jenne-Jeno, Hambarketolo, and Kaniana (Inland Niger Delta, Mali), the 1981 Season, ed. Susan Keech McIntosh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 114–145.

(24.) Hamady Bocoum and Susan Keech McIntosh, Excavations at Sincu Bara, Middle Senegal Valley (Senegal) (Dakar: IFAN/Cheik Anta Diop, 2002), 65–94; Gijanto, Liza. “Change and the Era of the Atlantic Trade: Commerce and Interaction in the Niumi Commercial Center (the Gambia)” (PhD diss., Syracuse University, 2010), 552–561; Gokee, Cameron D., “Daily Life in the Land of Bambuk: An Archaeological Study of Political Economy at Diouboye, Senegal” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2012), 127–144; Amy Lawson, “Megaliths and Mande States: Sociopolitical Change in the Gambia Valley over the Past Two Millennia” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2003); Francois Richard, “From Cosaan to Colony: Exploring Archaeological Landscape Formations and Socio-political Complexity in the Siin (Senegal), AD 500–1900” (PhD diss., Syracuse University, 2007), 583–590; Ibrahima Thiaw, “Archaeological Investigation of Long-Term Culture Change in the Lower Falemme (Upper Senegal Region) A.D. 500–1900” (PhD diss., Rice University, 1999), 168–206.

(25.) See Liza Gijanto, “Socio-economic Interaction and Ceramic Aesthetic: Understanding West African Ceramic Production and Use in Context,” Azania 46.3 (2011): 250–268.

(26.) Gijanto, “Socio-economic Interaction and Ceramic Aesthetic.”

(27.) Chris Gosden and Fiona Marshall, “The Cultural Biography of Objects,” World Archaeology 31.2 (1999): 169–178.

(28.) Pierre Lemonnier, “The Study of Material Culture Today: Toward and Anthropology of Technical Systems,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 5 (1986): 147–186; Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, trans. Anna Bostock Berger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).

(29.) Marcia-Anne Dobres and John Robb, eds. Agency in Archaeology (London: Routledge, 2000).

(30.) Oliver P. Gosselain, “Technology and Style: Potters and Pottery among Bafia of Cameroon,” Man 27.3 (1992): 559.

(31.) Gosselain, “Technology and Style.”

(32.) Oliver P. Gosselain, Alexandre Livingstone Smith, Helene Wallaert, Guy Williams Ewe, and Marc Vander Linden, “Preliminary Results of Fieldwork Done by the ‘Ceramic and Society Project’ in Cameroon, December 1995–March 1996,” Nyame Akuma 46 (1995): 11.

(33.) Oliver P. Gosselain, and Alexandre Livingstone Smith, “The Ceramics and Society Project: An Ethnographic and Experimental Approach to Technical Choice,” KVHAA Knferenser 34 (1995): 158.

(34.) Gijanto and Walshaw. “Ceramic Production and Dietary Changes,” 274–276; O. Linares de Sapir, “Diola Pottery of the Fogny and the Kasa,” Expedition 11.3 (1969): 9.

(35.) For example Rachel MacLean and Timothy Insoll, “The Social Context of Food Technology in Iron Age Gao, Mali,” World Archaeology 31.1 (1999): 78–92; McIntosh, Excavations at Jenne-Jeno.

(36.) Phillip J. Arnold, “Working without a Net: Recent Trends in Ceramic Ethnoarchaeology,” Journal of Archaeological Research 8.2 (2000): 105–133.

(37.) John H. Atherton, “Ethnoarchaeology in Africa,” The African Archaeological Review 1 (1983): 76.

(38.) Oliver P. Gosselain, “To Hell with Ethnoarchaeology!” Archaeological Dialogues 23.2 (2016): 217–218.

(39.) For example Michael Dietler, and Ingrid Herbich, “Ceramics and Ethnic Identity: Ethnoarchaeological Observations on the Distribution of Pottery Styles and the Relationship between the Social Contexts of Production and Consumption,” in Erre Cuite Et Société: La Céramique, Document Technique, Économique, Culturel. Xive Rencontre Internationale D’archéologie Et D’histoire D’antibes, eds. Didier Binder and Francoise Audouze (Juan-les-Pins: Éditions APDCA., 1994), 459–472.

(40.) Diane Lyons and A. Catherine D’ Andrea, “Griddles, Ovens, and Agricultural Origins: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Bread Baking in Highland Ethiopia,” American Anthropologist 105.3 (2003): 515–530.

(41.) Lyons and D’Andrea, “Griddles, Ovens, and Agricultural Origins,” 517–518.

(42.) John W. Arthur, “Culinary Crafts and Foods in Southwestern Ethiopia: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Gamo Groundstones and Pottery,” African Archaeological Review 31 (2014): 131–168.

(43.) Arthur, “Culinary Crafts and Foods,” 134.

(44.) John W. Arthur, “Pottery Use-Alteration as an Indicator of Socioeconomic Status: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of the Gamo of Ethiopia,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 9.4 (2002): 333.

(45.) Katherine M. Grillo, “Pastoralism and Pottery Use: An Ethnoarchaeological Study in Samburu, Kenya,” African Archaeological Review 31 (2014): 105–130.

(46.) Amanda Logan and M. Dores Cruz, “Gendered Taskscapes: Food, Farming, and Craft Production in Banda, Ghana in the Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries,” African Archaeological Review 31 (2014): 203–231.

(47.) Logan and Cruz, “Gendered Taskscapes,” 206.

(48.) Innocent Pikirayi and Anders Lindahl, “Ceramics, Ethnohistory, and Ethnography: Locating Meaning in Southern African Iron Age Ceramic Assemblages,” African Archaeological Review 30.4 (2013): 455–473.

(49.) Carolyn F. Sargent and David A. Friedel, “From Clay to Metal: Cultural Change and Container Usage among the Bariba of Northern Benin, West Africa,” The African Archaeological Review 4 (1986): 177–195.

(50.) Antonia Malan, “Chattels or Colonists? ‘Freeblack’ Women and Their Households,” Kronos 25.1998/1999 (1998): 50–71.

(51.) Malan, “Chattels or Colonists?,” 66.

(52.) Gijanto and Walshaw, “Ceramic Production and Dietary Changes.”

(53.) Gijanto and Walshaw, “Ceramic Production and Dietary Changes,” 292.

(54.) Jeremy W. Pope, “Epigraphic Evidence for a ‘Porridge-and-Pot’ Tradition on the Ancient Middle Nile,” Azania 48.4 (2013): 473–497.

(55.) Pope, “Epigraphic Evidence,” 484–485.

(56.) Julie Dunne, Richard P. Evershed, Melanie Salque, Lucy Champ, Silvia Bruni, Kathleen Ryan, and Stefano Biagetti, “First Dairying in Green Saharan Africa in the Fifth Millennium BC,” Nature 486 (2012): 390–394.

(57.) M. Patrick, A. J. de Koning, and A. B. Smith, “Gas Liquid Chromatographic Analysis of Fatty Acids in Food Residues from Ceramics Found in the Southwestern Cape, South Africa,” Archaeometry 27.2 (1985): 231–236.

(58.) See Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden, eds., Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

(59.) Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3–63, 3.

(60.) Arjun Appadurai, “The Past as a Scarce Resource,” Man 16.2 (1981): 494; Michael Dietler, “Theorizing the Feast: Rituals of Consumption, Commensal Politics, and Power in African Contexts,” in Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power, eds. Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden, 65–114 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 70.

(61.) Randi Haaland, “Changing Food Ways as Indicators of Emerging Complexity in Sudanese Nubia: From Neolithic Agropastoralists to the Meroitic Civilisation,” Azania 47.3 (2012): 328.

(62.) Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden, “Digesting the Feast: Good to Eat, Good to Drink, Good to Think,” in Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power, eds. Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 1–20.

(63.) For example, Gijanto and Walshaw, “Ceramic Production and Dietary Changes”; Karim Sadr, “Feasting on Kasteelberg? Early Herders on the West Coast of South Africa,” Before Farming 2004.3 (2004): 1–17.

(64.) Michael Dietler, “Theorizing the Feast”; Jeffrey Fleisher, “Rituals of Consumption and the Politics of Feasting on the Eastern African Coast, AD 700–1500,” Journal of World Prehistory 23 (2010): 195–217.

(65.) Ashley, “Towards a Socialised Archaeology.”

(66.) Oliver P. Gosselain, “Ceramics in Africa,” in Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (New York: Springer, 2008), 464–476.

(67.) While men tend to grow cash crops throughout Africa, women are responsible of household crops such as rice in regions such as the Senegambia. Judith Carney and Michael Watts, “Disciplining Women? Rice, Mechanization, and the Evolution of Mandinka Gender Relations in Senegambia,” Signs 16.4 (1991).

(68.) Sarah Croucher, “Clove Plantations on Nineteenth-Century Zanzibar: Possibilities,” Journal of Social Archaeology 7.3 (2007): 302–324.

(69.) Randi Haaland, “Porridge and Pot, Bead and Oven: Foodways and Symbolism Is Africa and the Near East from the Neolithic to the Present,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17.2 (2007): 165–182.

(70.) Mary Douglas, “Standard Social Uses of Food: Introduction.” In Food in the Social Order: Studies in Food and Festivities in Three American Communities, ed. Mary Douglas (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984), 1–39, 11.

(71.) Diane Kirkby and Tanja Luckins, eds., Dining on Turtles: Food Feasts and Drinking in History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).

(72.) Rachel MacLean and Timothy Insoll, “Archaeology, Luxury and the Exotic: The Examples of Islamic Gao (Mali) and Bahrain.” World Archaeology, 34.3 (2003): 558–570.

(73.) John W. Arthur, “Culinary Crafts and Foods in Southwestern Ethiopia: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Gamo Groundstones and Pottery,” African Archaeological Review 31 (2014): 131–168.

(74.) Thomas Huffman, “Ceramics, Classification, and Iron Age Entities,” African Studies Review 39.2 (1980): 123–174.

(75.) Gokee and Logan, “Comparing Craft and Culinary Practice in Africa.”

(76.) Arthur, “Culinary Crafts and Foods in Southwestern Ethiopia”; Gijanto and Walshaw, “Ceramic Production and Dietary Changes”; Logan and Cruz, “Gendered Taskscapes.”