Diola Pottery of the Fogny and the Kasa

By: Olga Linares De Sapir

Originally Published in 1969

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Separated from the modern capital of Dakar by rivers and difficult roads, the Diola of the Casamance in southern Senegal, West Africa, re­main largely traditional and self-sufficient. Theirs is a subsistence economy in which the more utili­tarian crafts, among them pottery, play an im­portant role. The same was true in the past. Dozens of small trash middens filled with pottery and other artifacts now stand as archaeological sites where ancient Diola villages once flourished. A knowledge of modern uses for these artifacts, and an understanding of the social forces behind their manufacture, can help us gain a fuller pic­ture of Diola society as it was in the past. In fact, it is just this special concern with the use of careful ethnographic analogy that has initiated much that is new and exciting in today’s archae­ology. Impatient with the study of pottery solely for chronology and areal distributions, archaeol­ogists are now turning their attention to what it can tell us about social and economic change.

These interests led me, while in Senegal, to make a side-study of Diola pottery. For two years (1964-66) my husband and I did fieldwork in two Diola villages. The first, Jipalom (pseudo­nym) was north of the Casamance River among the recently Islamisized Fogny Diola. In our compound lived one of the most productive pot­ters in the village. The second year we were in the more traditional, non-Islamisized, or pagan, sector of the Casamance called the Kasa, south of the river. I was doing archaeological work in old Diola sites, and nearby was the village of Ejungun which served as the only center of pot­tery manufacture for a very large area. By this time I was hoping to find sub-cultural differences between the Fogny and the Kasa as reflected in their pottery. This, in spite of the fact that all Diola pottery shares basic features of technology, much in the way that all 210,000 Diola share basic principles of social organization such as shallow descent units, absence of elaborate politi­cal institutions, and the practice of wet or inun­dated rice agriculture.

In the northern village of Jipalom, pottery manufacture is, as among all Diola, a woman’s task. Only a few women in each compound know how to pot. They are, in a sense, craft specialists; but only part-time. Pottery manufac­ture is confined to a two or three month period, at the end of the dry season when the rice and peanuts have been harvested, the salt has been boiled out of crusty, sandy deposits, and baskets have been woven to replace old, useless ones. The women who know how to make pots have learned after marriage. As one woman put it: “They cannot learn as girls from their mothers, who will boss them too much and they will run away.”

Since residence is always patrilocal—that is, with the husband’s people—and since the rules of exogamy within the compound, and within the quartiers (cluster of compounds), are stringent, women are forced to move out when they marry.

They may still be within their natal village (vil­lage endogamy is as high as 45% ). However, they will marry into a quartier that may be as far—two to ten kilometers—from the one they were born in, as a quartier of a neighboring vil­lage. In the new quartier there may be no potter to learn from. If a woman is highly motivated to learn, which is not always the case, she will have to go to a neighboring quartier. This fact, plus a high rate of divorce, encourages the circula­tion of women and discourages the perpetuation of individual styles at one locality. The opposite case, for example, has been proposed for the Ankara of North America where strict mother-daughter transmission of pottery skills, plus a matrilocal rule of residence, kept pottery designs within localized matrilineages.

The basic techniques of pottery manufac­ture are the same for the entire Diola area north and south of the river. Indeed, some techniques, if not universal, are certainly widespread in the world: the use of a rotary bowl or plate to turn the pots, and the coil method of building up the vessel walls. Other techniques, if considered to­gether, are characteristic only of the Fogny Diola. They may be best described by referring to the work of one woman, Ajen, our middle-aged neighbor from Jipalom. Her work was typical of the other Fogny women whom I observed.

Come April, Ajen, with the help of other women of her compound, built a potting shed from palm leaves and poles. A roof overhead prevents the clay from drying out too fast. That year Ajen had two assistants: a woman from the next compound eager to learn, and her sister, married into the neighboring village, anxious to receive for her help a handsome number of Ajen’s pots. Their first task is to procure and prepare the clay. Clay sources are more than a kilometer and a half from the compound, in an area be­tween the ricefields and the river. Women from all the neighboring villages come here to gather clay since, in their judgment, ‘the clay there is heavy and the pots won’t crack’. Once taken home in heavy baskets carried on the head, the clay is stored in a shady spot. As it is needed, the assistants pound large lumps in a goatskin with the aid of a wooden pestle used to pound rice. When the clay is soft and pliable, a pulver­ized potsherd grit is mixed in—what the archae­ologists call ‘sherd temper’.

Construction of different types of pots obvi­ously requires different procedures. In making an efagei, or large round jar for carrying water from well to house, the main steps employed are: building the base from a single lump by pinching coils into each other and smoothing the walls up­wards while rotating the base plate with the left hand, shaping the upper third or shoulder area with the help of a paddle, and, finally, making the mouth: most women consider that this last step is the most difficult. At the end, any depres­sion on the walls is corrected and if the potter is skillful, an amazingly symmetrical shape will emerge.

The decoration is added next. A tiny braid is made from a vine, and rolled on the shoulder area to produce a subtle dentate pattern. Then with a flourish the potter ‘signs’ her pot by incis­ing a few lines on the neck. For a long time I assumed this was an expression of aesthetic pride, only to find out that with characteristic Diola practicality it was done in order to tell one’s own pots from those of a companion when women potted together. That year Ajen did it out of habit. There was little danger of having her pots confused with the first lopsided efforts of her in­experienced apprentices.

From eight to ten such pots is Ajen’s average for a day’s work. At the end of three weeks she has perhaps two hundred pots of different sizes and shapes drying out in the sun before being fired. The morning this is to happen, the vessels are decorated with a wash or slip, a thin solu­tion of water and special yellowish clay. Dipping a bundle of straw in this liquid, Ajen hurriedly, and somewhat desultorily, rubs it on the outside of some jars and the inside of open bowls. Other vessels are only spattered with the liquid. The yellowish clay apparently contains iron oxides so that it turns bright red when fired.

Late the same afternoon all the vessels are taken to the ‘oven’, an open round hole over four­teen feet in diameter and about four feet deep, just outside the compound walls. The bottom of this hole has been lined with a layer of palm stems on which the women slowly and carefully arrange the pots: the big round jars first, the smaller bowls next, and finally the flaring bowls facing upwards. Fuel for firing is laid on top like the layers of a cake as the pile is covered first with coarse, then with light straw, and finally with bundles and bundles of dried leaves. Each of these layers is carefully packed in between the vessels. When all is ready, the pile is set on fire and left overnight to burn.

The next day, the still-smoldering, red-hot pots are lifted out and laid on the grass to cool. They are then tested by tapping with the knuckles (a hollow sound means there is a crack), and by pouring water into them. Small cracks can be repaired with cooked rice, but badly damaged vessels are simply smashed and reused as temper. A few lightly cracked ones can be used for stor­age of non-liquids such as salt, rice, seeds, or palm nuts. Of the 179 pots made in this particu­lar batch, eleven were destroyed and eight kept for non-liquids—a very good ratio and a testi­monial to Ajen’s professional expertise.

Let us at this point stop to ask what an archaeologist could learn by observing the manu­facturing techniques alone. First, one learns to identify sherd temper; this is hard to do in arch­aeological specimens, so the practice on ethno­graphic ones helps. Also, one can assume that the rotary plate and the coil method may have been used in the past, and one learns to look for signs of these. By knowing that open ovens are used today, and finding signs of them in old sites, one learns to disregard variable firing, inevitable in this kind of oven, as being of possible chrono­logical import. Further, one can learn to recog­nize simple tools used in decoration: a rolled braid, a leaf, a comb, shell stamping. Finally one can get a pretty good idea of per-capita produc­tion by a single woman.

More interesting, however, is what one can learn about vessel shapes and their modern uses. It is precisely in this area that variation and complexity in Diola pottery lie: in the wealth of shapes with different functions. They suggest to us some relevant problems of classification. For instance, there has been a debate in American archaeology as to whether ceramic modes (i.e., features of decoration and construction), singled out by archaeologists, should correspond to the distinctions made by the makers. Or should they, instead, be acknowledged as no more than arti­ficial constructs of the archaeologists for purposes of classification? Put in ethnoscience terms, what semantic distinctions are made by the Diola between different kinds of pots? Are these consistently drawn on the basis of a single visual dimension? The answer, I am afraid, is rather complicated. With round pots for water, one term (erumbai) is applied to the small version, an­other (efagei) for the middle-sized, and a third (kubikek) for the truly enormous. The three sizes have different functions and are therefore considered as different ‘types’: the small one is for pouring liquids, the middle-sized one to carry liquids, and the huge one to store water inside the homes. If we take another shape, however, say the small wide-mouthed cooking pot (ebiregai), the same term is applied irrespective of size; and the size differences can be enormous. They are all used in the same manner and therefore share the same name. This example alone showed me how fruitless for the archaeologist to attempt an approximation of the native’s criteria. These are not always consistent. Size for the Diola was relevant in one class of vessels and irrelevant in another.

We are on surer ground, however, when we consider the uses to which radically different kinds of pots are put. They are a sharp index of outside influences on Fogny-Diola society. Tra­ditional vessels made today are the water jars, the flaring bowls to wash clothes and bathe, and the cooking pots. Forms which the Fogny-Diola also claim as ancient are a kind of double-boiler for steaming millet and a small funnel to pour millet beer. A vessel which they say has been made for a long time but may be in response to the post-Portuguese introduction of tobacco is the tobacco pounder. Whether still another shape is pre- or post-European is not clear. This is the ‘incense’ burner where a smelly plant is smoked to drive away the musty odor of adobe houses in the rainy season.

Of the new shapes the most interesting is the one called the ebutelei. The form has a wide Islamic distribution, and it occurs in North Africa. It was probably introduced to the Fogny Diola by the Mandingo who have long been Islamisized. The Diola use it only to carry water to the fields. That it is a new form in the Fogny is attested by the fact that only three of the Jipalom potters, including Ajen, know how to make them. All three potters are in their forties or younger.

In fact, the subtle differences in style that exist between the pots made in Jipalom usually follow age lines. The older ladies cannot make the ebutelei, nor, they claim, can they ‘sign’ their pottery. Also, they use somewhat more profuse ‘plastic’ decoration than younger women: rubbing a spiral shell with pointed spikes over the bottom of the vessel, and making incisions on the shoulder area with the use of a fish spine. These differences, however, and the varia­tions between the pottery of different villages are largely a matter of emphasis. The degree of similarity over the entire Fogny-Diola area is truly amazing.

Turning now to the Kasa area south of the river where we find the Diola town of Ejungun, the situation here is quite different. Jipalom in the Fogny was fairly isolated, but Ejungun is really a section of Oussouye, the administrative center for a large area. While Jipalom was located inland, Ejungun is virtually on an arm of the Casamance River, a fact which gives it access to a large area by canoe. These two factors help explain why the women of Ejungun have become the commercial potters for the entire area. They serve the area of Pte. St. Georges, Oussouye itself, west to Kabrousse and Diembering, and as far north as the islands of Niomoune, an area of over twenty by forty kilometers. Nowadays, women outside of Ejun­gun have largely stopped making pots and in­stead buy Ejungun-made vessels with surplus rice. This cooperation works out very well, since the Ejungun people are too near a town and too over-populated to have large ricefields. Nonetheless, Ejungun women still do a certain amount of work in the ricefields and, like women elsewhere in the world, manage their own house­holds.

During the dry season, which begins in March, even a casual stroll through Ejungun reveals women potting in every backyard. Old ladies, young ones, all are busy searching for clay, gathering mollusks for temper, turning their pots, and loading them in canoes for sale in distant markets. No wonder, then, that the way in which pottery knowledge is transmitted be­tween generations is different here than in Jip­alom. Rather than casually and after marriage, Ejungun women learn fairly early, and usually from their mothers. Since the village is large and family names (within which marriage is prohibited) are numerous, most young men marry endogamously — that is, they tend to marry home-town girls. Women in Ejungun, therefore, usually stay put after marriage or move next door to their husband’s house. As a result, not only are potting techniques and design motifs passed from mother to daughter but they are kept within the village.

There are other obvious differences between Ejungun and Jipalom pottery. While the latter use sherd temper, Ejungun women use pounded shell. The favored species is a univalve (tym­panotonus) which grows abundantly in the sur­rounding mangrove. The shells are first burned in piles, then pounded in mortars before they are added to the clay. Since the gathering of mollusks has been important in the Kasa area for centuries, if not millennia, the use of shell temper is a logical by-product of their use as food. Mollusks, and therefore shell temper, are absent from the Fogny area.

Other differences between Ejungun and Jip­alom potters are more secondary. Ejungun women, for instance, do not build potting sheds but use their backyards instead. The pottery plates they use to turn the pots are flatter, and they flatten the clay coils before applying them, in contrast to the pinching technique of Jipalom. Ejungun women also decorate their pots more profusely. A common water jar like the one described for Ajen would in Ejungun receive two kinds of braid impressions, plus comb in­cisions and punctations. Conversely, Ejungun women use less red wash. Speaking impression­istically, the Ejungun product looks rather like the pottery made by the older generation in Jipalom.

The greatest obvious divergence between the pottery of the two areas lies in the shapes of the pots. Vessels to carry and store water are identical. But Ejungun women make in ad­dition a large one-handled cup from which the men drink palmwine with the help of a ladle. The prototype is a lovely wooden cup still seen sometimes, but rarely made because it is time-consuming to carve. Nowadays the Fogny-Diola do not make these cups since in the last fifty years they have embraced Islam, which forbids the drinking of palmwine as the symbol of the old pre-Muslim religion. The ebutelei is not made by Ejungun women because they are not Islam­isized. In addition, neither the double-boiler for millet, nor the funnel for pouring millet beer is present in Ejungun. This is due to differences in subsistence. Millet and sorgum were intro­duced into the Fogny area of Jipalom, together with Islam and other crops such as peanuts, by the neighboring group, the Mandingo or Malinke. Such influences have bypassed the Kasa area which has little well-drained land and limited contact with the Mandingo.

Contrasts between the archaeological pot­tery that I excavated in the Kasa and the modern pottery of Ejungun are also interesting from the viewpoint of social change. In the most recent of two archaeological periods established for the ancient middens, continuity with today is marked in matters of manufacture and decora­tion. Shell temper was used, as well as decora­tion with a slip, braid impressions, and puncta­tions with shell and comb. However, two forms occur archaeologically only. One is an enormous bottle-shaped container, obviously used for palm-wine storage before the Portuguese introduced the demi-juan. The other is a small, lidded pot which was probably used for cooking rice, the only food the Diola have which they feel absolutely needs a lid to cook. Today this vessel has been replaced by the iron pot and the iron lid.

Other kinds of inferences can be made from the Diola middens beyond parallels in the pottery. For instance, two kinds of middens are made today: pure shell heaps on the side of the rivers, where families go to shell the mollusks so that they will have to carry only the meat home, and ordinary refuse dumps near the houses. In addition to some shell the latter also contain broken pottery in large quantities, animal bones, and kitchen refuse. Both kinds of shell midden also occur archaeologically. Knowing their modern parallels helps to reconstruct ancient courses of the river; and by analogy with the modern situation, we can calculate the number of houses that once existed and can give ap­proximate population figures even though nothing but the middens now remains.

To conclude, then, what have we learned from Diola pottery that is useful in understand­ing Diola society, and the reverse? What have we learned about the relationship between pot­tery styles and forces in the society which make for conservatism or change? First, let me review the factors that contribute to the basic stylistic similarity of pottery north and south of the Casamance River. The most important of these is historical: the Fogny migrated north initially from somewhere in the Kasa. Then, in each of these two areas, standard forms and techniques are diffused, in one by circulating the women, in the other by circulating the pots. As far as stylistic conservatism through time is concerned, I think there are several reasons for this. One is the overwhelming value placed in Diola society on the function of the pottery and the complete indifference to surface aesthetics. So long as the need to transport water remains, so will the rounded jars. And embellishment is dis­regarded in favor of symmetry, lightness, and durability. A corollary of the stress on function is the use of pottery for utilitarian needs only. The opposite was true of the pottery made by many Latin American Indians, for example, where special ornate pottery had social func­tions as well—for instance, as grave-goods for important people. Among the Diola, rank and class are minimized and a wealthy man is dis­tinguished at death by the party his kin give rather than by what is buried with him. Material possessions such as pottery do not serve as a symbol of status differences. The Diola are pre­eminently pragmatic people and their society is strongly egalitarian.

Cite This Article

Sapir, Olga Linares De. "Diola Pottery of the Fogny and the Kasa." Expedition Magazine 11, no. 3 (May, 1969): -. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/diola-pottery-of-the-fogny-and-the-kasa/

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