Humans have always used the materials surrounding them to create objects they need in everyday life. Pottery-making is one of the earliest technological traditions practiced in Africa since 9400 BCE (Huysecom et al., 2009). It continues today in different parts of Africa, including Ethiopia. While some think of archaeology as only studying things from the past, a branch of archaeology called “ethnoarchaeology” studies the relationship between “people and the material world” today as an aid to better understand past human activities (Lyons, 2013, p. 87). Ethnoarchaeologists study how people make, use, and discard things today as a source of analogies for understanding what archaeologists find when they excavate sites. They use these ethnographic analogies drawn from the study of modern societies to infer how other societies may have lived in the past (David & Kramer, 2001).

An ethnoarchaeological study of contemporary pottery technology offers archaeological insights into historical and social identities and group interactions. A skilled potter knows many things: how to choose good clay, process it, and form and fire it to make useful containers. Depending on the situation, these choices combine to form what archaeologists call a “technological style,” which refers to the habits and choices potters learn from their mothers, grandmothers, or others. The interaction between people with technological skill sets and those who learn skills is known as a learning network. The learning networks lead to distinctive styles informed by deeply rooted social practices that potters learned as members of their community (Dietler & Herbich, 1989). The potters learn their skills intentionally, but once mastered, the skillset becomes unconscious and routine. However, potters can modify the practice if confronted with new socioeconomic or ideological circumstances (Downey, 2010; Lyons, 2014; Wayessa, 2021). This ethnoarchaeological study enlightens us about the past and offers a window into the future of this traditional craft.

To illustrate how ethnoarchaeology can help us to understand the past and appreciate potting as a resilient livelihood practice, I draw on an example from the West Wollega Zone of Oromia, Ethiopia (Figs. 1 and 2). The ethnoarchaeological study of pottery-making took place in 2016 and 2022 in Gimbi, Lalo Asabi, and Nole Kaba Districts (aanaa) of West Wollega Zone, and the research was conducted in Afan Oromo, the language of the study population. Afan Oromo is widely spoken in Ethiopia and northern Kenya.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Map of Oromia State and the study districts—Gimbi, Lalo Asabi, and Nole Kaba—in West Wollega Zone

Fig. 2
figure 2

A rural landscape in the West Wollega Zone with cleared and active farm fields (A), and a woman sitting on the edge of a clay-mining site in Enango, using a hoe to mine clay (B)

According to the Oromo of East Africa, “namni seenaa isaa hin beekne bishaan gabatee irraa ti; lafa argetti jal’ata,” which translates to “a person who does not know their past is like water on a plate that flows everywhere.” This implies that having a better understanding of the past helps us to navigate present situations or challenges. In this regard, archaeologists work in and with society, and archaeological discoveries on display in museums and exhibitions can help create sustainable livelihood alternatives. One way is by promoting tourism (Croes, 2014; Mustafa, 2014). Similarly, ethnoarchaeological research, which is often conducted among rural communities, creates awareness of issues such as poverty and gender inequality while promoting the work of marginalized social groups by valuing their work and keeping traditions alive through publications, outreach, and advocacy (Wayessa, 2020). According to Balbo et al. (2017), studying past human interactions with the environment helps us better understand how humans managed their ecosystems in different periods and how cultural groups interacted with their environments. Scarborough (2009) draws attention to how resilience, as manifested in material evidence of ancient social complexities, enlightens us on how to engage sustainably with the fragile ecosystems that define our current era (see also Hoehn et al., this volume; Logan & Grillo, this volume). As underscored by the UN General Assembly’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 (UN General Assembly, 2015), the well-being of people depends on addressing poverty (SDG 1), enhancing gender equality (SDG 5), providing opportunities for decent work (SDG 8), reducing inequalities (SD 10), and responsibly producing and consuming (SDG 12). The SDGs have 17 interconnected objectives that will serve as a shared scheme to promote global sustainable and all-inclusive economic development in the present and future. Here I explore how what we learn from ethnoarchaeology about making pots and meals in Wollega helps us think about sustainable development. In doing so, I examine how women learn from one another across generations and how they have innovated their practices in changing circumstances resulting from government changes in land tenure policy and competition with alternative plastic and enamel materials that are undermining their ability to maintain their pottery-making livelihoods. So, how does ethnoarchaeological thinking serve the past and present?

Making Pottery Is “Making Knowledge”

Ethiopia has multiple pottery-making communities, each with its distinctive technological tradition. Therefore, studying the contemporary pottery-making traditions of cultural groups helps us learn about the group’s social history and its interactions with neighboring cultural groups (Arthur, 2006; Lyons, 2014; Wayessa, 2021). In Ethiopia, pottery-making lies mostly in the domain of women, who are well-versed in the science of making objects from minerals through learning networks that often include immediate or extended family members. One cultural group in Ethiopia that has continued to practice pottery-making to the present day is the Oromo of Wollega, Ethiopia. In the Oromo community, adult women teach their daughters pottery-making from an early age. Young women acquire pottery-making knowledge and skills through hands-on learning (Fig. 3). They learn by doing. Because daughters are often trained from an early age by their mothers, they tend to retain the specific forming method they learned in childhood throughout their adult lives, and it becomes part of their motor skills and daily routines (see the Wollega Ethnoarchaeology YouTube link). Preparing a lump and molding clay are the major pottery-forming methods in Wollega. With these methods, potters first prepare a larger ball of clay and place and compress the clay ball against a concave-shaped mold. The potter then adds smaller balls of clay to build up the wall.

Fig. 3
figure 3

An adult Oromo potter gives hands-on pottery-making instruction to her young daughter

Hands-on learning methods are widely used to teach students at different age levels in various disciplines, ranging from archaeology (Clarkson & Shipton, 2015) to engineering (Greenberg et al., 2003) and from an early age (Kim, 1993). Oromo women potters mastered their skills and passed them down through generations. Their hands-on instruction training is very much contextualized, and the women do this by incorporating instructional proverbs, oral storytelling (Wayessa, 2020, 2021), and the use of words of appreciation during the instruction to counter social stigma coming from the mainstream social groups (non-artisans) who think potters have low status. One example of oral storytelling is in the form of a puzzle that potters (and, of course, the rest of Oromo society) use to challenge their children’s accuracy and mental abilities through repetition. During the daylong pottery-making, potters teach their children practical skills alongside proverbial wisdom and working memory, similar to a classroom setting. While the puzzle presented in Table 1 continues up to one hundred, I focus on one to ten. One key element in this puzzle is repetition, which is also key in mastering pottery-making skills.

Table 1 Oral storytelling in the form of a puzzle the elderly Oromos, including potters, use to challenge their children’s accuracy and mental abilities. Repetition is believed to bring precision and accuracy

Potters often use the phrase intala haadha caaltuu, which means “a daughter more skillful than her mother.” This encourages young potters to maintain at least the minimum standard of the traditions learned and possibly improve on the tradition without departing too far from the material knowledge they have learned. The apprentices are encouraged to practice, and if what they produce is not the desired quality, they are encouraged to break it and start again (Fig. 4). Adult potters often repeat an Oromo proverb, namni garaa keessatti barate hin jiru, which translates to “no one learned in their mother’s womb.” This encourages the apprentice not to feel ashamed of the mistakes they make.

Fig. 4
figure 4

A young potter forms a pot (A) and breaks it to start over after making a mistake (B)

“Mother Earth Is for Us All,” Says Aannanee

Aannanee, a middle-aged Oromo potter in Gimbi, enjoys sharing her life experiences with anyone interested in talking to her. Aannanee says, laftii kan walooti, meaning “land is a communal property.” She claims that, in Oromo tradition, the land is sacred and is a gift from nature. Aannanee remembers when her father, Obbo Olaani Barii, used to spill a little of the drinks he brewed, including local beer (farsoo), before drinking and dropped a piece of bread onto the ground before starting to eat. She remembers hearing him say, “The earth/land gave us everything, and all we can do is give back a little to acknowledge and show modesty.” However, land has recently been commodified, limiting potters’ customary free access to the clay mining sites where they get their raw materials.

Aannanee seems unhappy that the commodification of land in Ethiopia does not fit with traditional rural practices. For her, rural people use the land for different purposes. While cultivating and pasturing are the most common uses, the land is also the source of herbs for treating illness and wood for construction and even for sheltering in the shade. Aannanee crystalizes this point by saying, mukti guyyaa tokko jalatti haara baafatan nama dhiba: “A tree under which you take a break has a value.” The saying reminds us that everything must be valued. For her and people like her (other craft specialists) who have no land to cultivate and whose economy is based on selling craft products, the land is the major source of clay or grasses used for basketry (Fig. 5). Aannanee has a very good sense of self-esteem. She proudly describes how she learned to make pots out of clay from her mother at an early age. Aannanee remembers that she used to go to the clay-mining site with her mother and neighboring adult potters. Then clay was mined freely from communal lands. Aannanee is sad that recent changes in land policy have affected her and her fellow artisans. With a big smile, she describes the policy as waan barri fide, meaning “circumstance brought by the contemporary period.” She remarks with contempt that we live in an era when food production is encouraged but not the production of the pot used to cook food. The potters and basket weavers, mainly women, are disproportionally affected by these policies, which have marginalized pottery-making women by limiting their access to clay (Wayessa, 2020).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Pots (A) and baskets (B) for sale in Enango town

Aannanee expressed her disappointment with the idea of gender equality (wal-qixxummaan saalaa) that she often hears when she goes to the market to sell her pots. She is not against the concept per se, but she asks with a strong hint of sarcasm, “Why gender equality when amenities such as electricity are only available in towns?”. She claims that rural women, especially potters, have not received any attention from proponents of gender equality.

However, Aannanee’s disappointment is expressed more strongly about recent land policies that distributed communal land, including clay-mining sites, among local farmers. The potters and basket weavers, mainly women, are disproportionally affected by these policies, which have marginalized pottery-making women by limiting their access to clay (Wayessa, 2020). As a result, the land policy fails to meet UN SDGs, such as achieving gender equality, empowering women and girls, reducing inequality, and ending poverty in all its forms everywhere. Annanee’s words remind us that achieving UN SDGs requires governments to consider the effects of policies on the livelihoods of communities.

The Science Behind Resource Selection and Preparation in Pottery Technology

We have seen that potting involves skills and knowledge that are transmitted intergenerationally. However, this knowledge goes beyond the mechanics of forming a pot. Potters must know where to find the raw materials they need and how best to process them. This requires practical knowledge of landscapes and clays, a knowledge that in a school setting is called science (see also Bandama & Babalola, this volume). Let us consider their knowledge in relation to some of the steps involved in pottery-making.

Acquiring Clay

Wollega potters mine clay from the waterlogged ground. Potters begin by draining off the water to gain access to the clay. They know that the further down they dig, the better the clay will be, and if they dig deep enough, they will reach quality clay, which they call suphee qulqulluu (pure clay). Clay is formed over long periods from inorganic minerals (Moreno-Maroto & Alonso-Azcárate, 2018), so pure clay is void of organic matter. The upper levels of the clay have been infiltrated by organic matter that compromises the purity of the clay, and potters’ understanding of the state of clay minerals based on the location of its deposition warrants acknowledgment of their knowledge of soil science.

Clay Preparation

Women’s potting know-how overlaps with their cooking know-how. Both require careful selection and processing of ingredients, processes of fermentation, and transformation through the use of fire to make the things (pots and meals) that sustain their families. To make bread, women grind cereal grains, including teff, sorghum, and maize, but they do not use yeast to convert dough to sourdough through fermentation. The women mix the flour with water to make a paste, add it to a dough jar, and then put it in a dark place. Two ingredients are required to convert the dough in a pot to sourdough to bake buddeena (a pancake-like flatbread) (Fig. 6A). First, a boiled dough (mooqa) is added and mixed with the dough in a jar when it cools down, which helps to activate fermentation by warming the dough and giving the bread a softer texture. Second, to activate the fermentation process, the women add leftover sourdough (raacitii) intentionally kept from the previous batch. After three or four days, the dough is fermented enough to bake the sour pancake-like flatbread.

Fig. 6
figure 6

A young woman bakes sourdough maize bread on a ceramic griddle (A), and a young girl crushes damaged pottery on a stone to make temper that will be added to the raw clay (B)

Similarly, before making a pot, potters must first prepare the clay. Batches of mined clay are kept for seven days or more to ferment. They rub the clay with leaves or garments to speed up the fermentation (bukaa’uu) process by preventing air from outside from entering the clay. The process of fermenting dough for bread and fermenting clay for making pots aligns with science, where proper fermentation requires a dark environment and warm temperatures (Stear, 1990). Notably, the potters use the same word, bukaa’uu, to describe fermenting dough to make bread. Once the clay has fermented, they knead it using hands, feet, or a pounder to enhance its elasticity and render it more workable. At this point, the temper prepared from damaged pots is added. Temper (modifier) is any organic or inorganic material added to clay to improve its workability and resist heat shock during firing and use. Oromo potters often use grogs (small fragments of broken pots) to temper their clay (Fig. 5). Grogs have a high concentration of alumina and silica, which have thermal resistance quality, and adding grog to pottery during molding decreases the shrinkage and breakage of pottery during firing. This is especially important for cooking vessels; grog helps improve their resistance to thermal shocks and prevent cracks (Peterson, 2019).

Potters’ Resilience in the Face of Adversity

We should not imagine potters simply doing things as they have always been. Potters are proactive in response to unexpected situations like the prohibition from traditional mining sites. They have been able to adapt in order to overcome the problem. Some potters have begun to find new mining sites in places that are still accessible to them, abandoning the sites their ancestors had used for generations. As one potter put it, akka baran miti, akka baraatti bulu, which roughly means, “one lives not according to how one learns, but according to circumstance.” They have not stopped their practice despite losing access to their old mining sites. The potters have shown resilience by looking for alternative clay resources or dealing with new landlords to negotiate access to clay.

Potters know how the increasingly widespread distribution of plastic and enamel objects threatens their livelihoods. Such things have become readily available, even in small rural towns, and are replacing locally made pottery (Wayessa, 2021). However, potters have not given up. They have figured out the objects that are still in demand in the community and ones less easily replaced by non-local alternatives. Among other things, the coffee pot (jabanaa), bread griddle (eelee), and distillation jar (okkotee araqee) continue to be essential since there are no suitable alternatives for these locally made pottery objects. These continue to be made on a large scale and are widely used in rural areas and towns. In addition, the potters have identified the functions and designs of newly introduced objects and have begun to apply their skills to making charcoal stoves and flower vases, among other things. Potters have also started to make new steaming griddles used to bake thick bread (cumboo) by steaming instead of direct heat. To produce bread this way, water is boiled on a steaming griddle, and the plate containing the dough is placed over the griddle and the boiling water. The steam rises from the boiling water, heats the plate, and cooks the bread. Potters began to make griddles compatible with a newly introduced baking stove that helped women to avoid too much smoke and save wood. This baking stove needs a thin-walled griddle. There were no stoves in the past, and women used three hearthstones to support the griddle during baking. Because of the pressure of hearthstones on the griddle, women would favor a thicker griddle, as they were more resistant to the stones’ impact than thinner-walled griddles.

“My Meals in Pots,” Says Ayyaantuu

Ayyaantuu was born in the pottery-making village of Haroji Agamsa in southwestern Ethiopia. As in the time of her parents, the village economy is artisan-based, and pottery-making and other craftworks have a significant place in village life. However, unlike their neighboring farmers, artisans do not have sufficient access to farmland to cultivate. Ayyaantuu grew up playing with clay while her mother and late grandmother used it to make pots. Her parents were supportive, allowing her to use the clay to make figurines of animals and humans. Ayyaantuu claimed that she had already begun making small pots by age ten. She remembers that when she brought the small bowls she made to market, people bought all of hers before her mother’s, but Ayyaantuu says that consumers who bought her pots gave the money to her mother instead of her. Ayyaantuu sarcastically claims that clients bought her pots faster than her mother’s because she made more attractive pots than her mother. Her mother smiled and said dhugaa iette Ayyaantuu koo, intala haadha caaltu jechuun si’i: “You are right, my Ayyaantuu, you are a daughter who is more skillful than her mother.”

Her mother elaborated with a smile that her culture holds that qodaan bartuu waan lubbuu dheeratuuf, “An object made by an apprentice will last a long time.” The reality is not that objects created by apprentices have greater longevity, but the phrase is used to encourage and appreciate the achievement of younger girls. The young potters are also told the importance of the skills passed unto them from ancestors and the need to be forward-looking through the proverb kan darbe yaadatanii, isa gara fuula duraa itti yaadu: “By thinking about the past, one looks forward to the future.” In so doing, the potters connect the past to the future while living the present.

As noted above, sustainable development goals include poverty reduction, decent work, and responsible production and consumption (SDGs 1, 8, and 12). For women like Ayyaantuu, potting is a livelihood that draws on the past but looks to the future. According to Ayyaantuu, pottery is the source of her meals. This means that the family buys food by selling pottery, and pottery objects are used for cooking and serving food, and that is why Ayyaantuu says, sooranni koo xuwwee keessa: “My meals are in the pots.” Even when potters only had limited access to farmland, their economy was still mainly based on pottery-making, and it also means that pottery objects continued to be used for cooking and serving meals.

Longevity and Recycling

We have seen that sustainable development encourages responsible consumption (SDG 12). The durability of pottery is partly based on how carefully they are used, so how do the potters teach their children to take care of pottery objects? The proper use of objects is encouraged by the view that pottery objects are sentient. As background, the premature death of a person is abnormal in Oromo society, and early deaths are often blamed on someone in the family who has deviated from society’s moral codes. Such behavior disappoints the guardian spirits, and when this happens, the elders pray to appease the spirits and restore social order. In the same way, a pot that is broken before it wears out (ergarama) is likened to the sudden death of a person who has not yet assumed their sociocultural responsibilities. The person responsible for the pot’s breakage is considered a murderer, and they must take measures to atone for their behavior. In Oromo society, a person who kills another person is expected to pay compensation (gumaa) (Wayessa, 2015). The money for the gumaa is not paid from one’s pocket but is collected by the murderer from the local community. Anyone guilty of breaking a pot is expected to pay a gumaa in a similar way. In this case, he or she collects money from neighbors, friends, and other villagers to pay for it. To avoid the recurrence of such penalties, people become more responsible and careful when using household objects.

Pots that become damaged are also recycled. Recycling helps to reduce the over-exploitation of resources and ecological damage caused by throwing away used objects (Ramayah et al., 2012) and contributes to responsible consumption (SDG 12). The Oromo potters have been practicing recycling for generations, and that skill is passed on through their learning network. They recycle pots damaged during firing and drying or while in use. They grind the materials and convert them into a temper widely used in pottery production (Fig. 6B). The use of fired objects for temper has several advantages. Potters argue that burning removes all impurities (unnecessary organic materials) in the clay batch used to make the damaged objects and turns the material into pure clay. Grinding the broken pot to temper improves the quality of the clay used and makes it more resistant to heat shock during firing. The temper also enhances the workability of the clay by improving its texture.

Discussion and Conclusion

So, what do we learn from ethnoarchaeology? We have seen that pottery is a technology that has long been central to peoples’ lives and livelihoods and that the Ethiopian potting community has unique technological traditions transmitted from generation to generation with alterations and improvements when needed. Knowing about contemporary pottery technological styles helps researchers to infer how past people made pottery objects and their interactions. The choices a potter makes at each stage of production are guided by social choices learned as members of a community. As a result, each pottery-making cultural group has its unique technological styles, which form a material expression of social identity for the cultural group.

Although pottery technological styles have been transmitted from generation to generation through learning networks, potters innovate in the face of changing circumstances. As examples, we saw that they made new objects in clay and modified the form of pre-existing ones. Potters have also begun to make new products, including flower vases, charcoal stoves, and components for baking stoves to produce bread through steaming. Changes in pottery forms, however, have a limited effect on pottery technology. This is because potters learn at an early age as members of a pottery-making community, and they continue to use the clay resource and forming methods they learned as a member of their community.

Pottery-making is an African technological tradition that pre-dates agriculture (Haaland, 1995) and has continued to the present day because of the resilience of those involved in the practice. The earliest evidence in the continent dates back to 9400 BCE (Huysecom et al., 2009). The potters who converted natural clay to usable things have preserved the past and present socioeconomic circumstances of the cultural group they represent through their technological style and have managed to make their livelihood according to an Indigenous knowledge system, which is ecologically friendly. They have invented and maintained an alternative livelihood. In addition to meeting their needs by selling their pottery, potters benefit their local community by manufacturing and supplying much-needed utensils. Women potters have managed to generate income to support themselves, which has at least in part kept them from depending on their husbands by generating an income that allows them some degree of independence. Marketing pottery objects also allows rural women potters to travel to town to meet and share their stories, make friends, and extend their consumer networks. As a result, pottery-making has a role to play in fighting gender inequalities as well as combating rural poverty. It supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that focus on ending poverty in all its forms everywhere (SDG 1), achieving gender equality by empowering women and girls (SDG 5), and reducing inequality within and between countries (SDG 10).

Rural potters are a group that is strongly affected by globalization and the uncontrolled distribution of plastic and enamel objects produced elsewhere. These products are replacing pottery objects because of their comparative advantages, such as longevity and ease of use (Wayessa, 2020). However, because of the deep cultural values attached to pottery objects and taste preferences, some pottery objects—coffee pots, ceramic griddles, and distillation jars—remain popular. The recent sociocultural resurgence in Africa and many African diaspora groups (Warfield-Coppock, 1992) also favors locally made objects that create an opportunity for rural potters to maintain their livelihoods.

Rural Oromo pottery-making women have faced multiple challenges, from competition from modern industrial products to a lack of access to resources. However, their motivation to produce pottery remains, and they have navigated the challenges by making decisions wisely and creatively. Their understanding of the past and what is at stake in the present has helped them maintain their Indigenous knowledge system and kept pottery as a source of their livelihoods and for serving their meals. Therefore, by studying modern societies to extrapolate how past societies may have lived, ethnoarchaeological approaches help us understand the past and alert policymakers to the realization that Indigenous technology is an environmentally sound livelihood.