African Archaeological Review

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 455–473 | Cite as

Ceramics, Ethnohistory, and Ethnography: Locating Meaning in Southern African Iron Age Ceramic Assemblages

  • Innocent PikirayiEmail author
  • Anders Lindahl
Original Article


For ceramics to be relevant in the Southern African Iron Age, archaeologists must broaden their theoretical base to include social and other contexts when interpreting material culture items such as pottery. Pottery remains critical in understanding cultural dynamics in the region for the past two millennia, but current usage is narrow in scope. Using ethnohistorical data and archaeological examples from South Africa and Zimbabwe, we argue that pottery provides valuable information on the region's Iron Age, if archaeologists address the social meaning of ceramic assemblages. Ceramic production among rural communities provides the basis on which a wide range of social issues are discussed and used to critique pottery recovered from archaeology. Ethnography suggests that ceramic assemblages are context specific, and archaeologists are cautioned against making generic statements on the basis of similarities of vessel shape and decoration motif.


Ethnohistory Ethnography Ceramic assemblage Social meaning Production Distribution 


Pour faire en sorte que la céramique contribue aux études de l'Âge du Fer en Afrique australe, l'interprétation archéologique doit prendre meileure mesure des différents contextes dans lesquels évolue la poterie. La poterie joue un rôle critique dans la compréhension des dynamiques culturelles de la région au cours des deux derniers millénaires, mais elle demeure limitée dans son usage. Sur la base de données ethno-historiques et d'exemples archéologiques tirés d'Afrique du Sud et du Zimbabwe, nous soutenons que la poterie peut fournir des informations précieuses sur l'Âge de Fer régional si les archéologues s'attachent à examiner la signification sociale des assemblages céramiques. La production potière dans les communautés rurales nous permet de traiter un large éventail de questions sociales et de formuler une critique de la poterie issue de l'archéologie. Nos données ethnographiques suggèrent que les assemblages céramiques doivent être traités dans leur contexte propre, et mettent les archéologues en garde contre les explications générales sur la base de similarités morphologiques et décoratives.



This paper is based on fieldwork conducted between 2009 and 2011, where we interviewed 13 potters in both Zimbabwe and South Africa. We have also included data on potters interviewed in the Guruve District of Zimbabwe in 1988. Our fieldwork was funded by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and Swedish Research Council (VR) within the framework of the research projects, “Ceramics and the Ethnographic Present: Ceramic Manufacturing Techniques in Southern Africa” (NRF Grant UID 65398 and SA-Swedish VR Links programme), “Ceramics: A Resilient Technology” (South African Biosystematics Imitative Indigenous Knowledge Program, NRF Project Number 75924). The authors sincerely thank potters in both Venda and Zimbabwe for sharing their knowledge and for welcoming us and our postgraduate students to their homes. We also thank peer reviewers for their criticisms and highly constructive comments. We thank François Richard for translating the abstract into French.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and ArchaeologyUniversity of PretoriaPretoriaSouth Africa
  2. 2.Laboratory for Ceramic Research, Department of GeologyLund UniversityLundSweden

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