top of page


Beliefs and Taboos About Clay Mining:

A socio-cultural assessment

Dicle ÖNEY I Sevim ÇİZER

Sakarya Üniversitesi, Sanat Tasarım ve İzmir Ekonomi Üniversitesi,

Mimarlık Fakültesi, Seramik ve Cam Bölümü Güzel Sanatlar ve Tasarım Fakültesi


Ceramic has a characteristic of being one of the necessary objects of the social life sometimes for meeting the daily needs and sometimes for functioning as a means of expression. In this sense, it’s observed that taboos and rituals encountered in socio-cultural structures of primitive communities, are also seen in pottery production. These taboos and rituals starting from the clay pits, are present in all the operations until the final step of firing. This study reviews the beliefs, taboos and rituals that are seen during clay mining and aims to assess its’ relation with pottery production in a socio-cultural perspective. As a conclusion of the study it’s seen that taboos in the production; as a metaphor life beginning with creation myths is identifying the phenomenons of reproduction-production, life-death.

Keywords: Pottery, Clay Mining, Taboo, Ritual, Belief


Ceramic has had a characteristic of sometimes a utensil meeting the daily needs and sometimes an important, valuable object offered to gods, kings and emperors as an essential item of a rite in the community it’s produced. It also had a characteristic of a means of expression that’s required for use in almost all the stages of social life continuum between birth and death. With this, it has become an object that’s often researched to analyse and describe the ethnographic structures of a community in religious, historical, political, socio-cultural and socio-economical aspects.

It should be noted that in this compiled text, beliefs, rituals and taboos in the pottery production of different geographies, are discussed in a socio-cultural context and multi- disciplinary approach. In a series of articles on beliefs, rituals and taboos that are encountered in all of the operations of ceramic production, this first chapter is about clay mining from pits.

By interpreting the technical and operational chain, ceramics is a way to understand the culture of materials. For this reason, one of the crafts with “Chaîneopératoire” (operational chain) identified by today’s archeology and socio-cultural anthropology, is pottery. According to Gosselain (2018:1), operational chain is a cultural background that brings together the raw material, tool, production know-how, representation and intermediary factors. The nature and order of these elements result from the social, historical and environmental relations network that such network will not only describes the artist’s work within a socio-historical framework but also determines individuals’ commitment to their crafts during the production process and how they give shape and meaning to them. According to Albero (2014:196), ceramic will actively involves in a daily life experience that daily rutines, ideologies, traditions and behaviors are accepted as normal and let us preserve a symbolic conservative system.

Beliefs and Taboos Related With Pottery Production Process

Today there are many communities in different geographies where pottery production is still being commonly made. Particularly the traditions and beliefs which are the part and parcel the daily life of primitive communities, are being reinforced with prohibitions considered as a taboo.

Taboo is a word from Polinesian language. According to Freud (2017:36), taboo has two opposite meanings: one is sacred, sanctified the other is terrible, dangerous, prohibition, impure. Taboos encountered while producing a pot, are involving “sacred, sanctity” that expresses the meaning of the word and “danger, impurity” that results from this situation.

Being sacred results from the action of shaping-creating with clay being identified with creation myths as a metaphor. These creation myths included in sacred books such as “Adam being created from a slump of sludge” are similarly seen in the myths of many tribes. For example; In East Africa, one of the seventeen tribes of Kenya Babukusu (Bukusu) community is believing two creation myths. “According to the first myth, WeleKhakaba (creating god) has created the heaven and the clay and caused the first life and human come together and be produced. As for in the second myth WeleKhakaba has joined the cosmic dust he took from the Morning Star (ya Sulwe) with clay and created the first human and life. It’s believed that these creation myths has taken place in clay pits called ‘Siumbwa’ and so that Siumbwa is thought to be a divine place as the source of all human life. For one has created the human and the others are creating the pots, WeleKhakaba and Babukusu potters are called ‘Omubumbi’ which means creator” (Nangendo, 1996, s. 70-71). In Babessi located in the Grassfields region of Cameroon, working with clay is functioning as a strong metaphor for human reproduction. Clay pits called Mvoh are identified with the most private and sacred inner room of the kingdom era palace. This room is the place where the King (Fwa) is designing the children that will ensure the kingdom’s continuity and liveliness and control the vital substance which protects the existence and welfare of the village (Forni, 2007, s. 43).

In Botswana, even it’s suitable, the clay is not provided from within the village and public places because those places where people are walking around, are deemed dirty. There are some practices to remove dirtiness away. Branches cut from special plants called Mobatlba or Mosiane, are thrown to places where there’s clay and other raw materials blended into it. Same plants are mixed with water and those who attend a funeral rite, wash their hands with this water. In addition, if a guest comes while the potter is preparing the clay or during the production this mixage is poured onto the guests (Thebe & Sadr, 2017, s. 290).

Beliefs and Taboos About Clay Mining

Many communities describe the areas with clay pits as places where sacred souls or the souls of their ancestors are wandering around. For this reason, it’s also important when, who and how to visit these places. In Ghana, it’s prohibited to mine clay from clay pits or hoe in the field on Fridays and Sundays. According to the beliefs of the natives, those places are being inspected by the God Axava on those days. It’s believed that if these taboos are broken those who visit there will get ill or no rain will drop (Halluska, 1999, s. 16-17). According to the traditions of Ashanti community living in South Ghana, souls live in every object and these souls should be calmed down. For this reason, potters do the clay mining work traditionally only on lucky days. For example, it’s prohibited to mine clay on the days of offering to AsaseYa, the earth goddess of Ashanti potters. Because earth is deemed as and identified with female in Sub-Saharan Africa. (Acheampong, 2015, s. 78). As for in Sudan and Sahra regions these areas are described as areas where evil spirits are wandering around and thought to cause incidents like infertility, abortion, blindness or death. For this reason, it’s prohibited to mine clay on certain days of the week. This prohibited day is generally Friday while other days vary according to the groups (Vincentelli, 2004, s. 48).

To avoid polluting these places deemed sacred and annoying gods and souls of the ancestors; it’s prohibited for pregnant women, menstruated women, recently widowed ones, those who get into a sexual course recently to enter the clay mines (Vincentelli, 2004:28,48; Thebe, 2016:341; Gosselain, 1992:566; Lindahl&Pikirayi, 2010:11; Kayamba&Kwesiga, 2016:85). In many communities, especially menstruated women are prohibited to be here in all of the stages of the production. Or else, it’s believed that women will go through early menopause and lose their fertility. Such that, Yoruba women which’s a big community living in Nigeria, don’t wear red colored dresses which symbolizes blood and danger. According to Vincentelli (2004:52), pot is perceived as a metaphor of the uterus so that soil screening can only be done by women at the last stage of their menopause. As for in the Kpando town located in the north of Ghana, it was prohibited for inexperienced young girls to enter clay pits in the past. It’s believed that girls and women who didn’t go through puberty rites yet, may pollute the gods on earth (Asante, Adjei, &Asare, 2013, s. 64).

In the communities where production is done by women, the men are prohibited to enter clay pits. If this rule is violated in the Ankole region of West Uganda, it’s believed that men will be impotent (Kayamba&Kwesiga, 2016:85). The prohibition of men from entering these areas in Ghana, is thought to be based on women being naked during clay mining operation. (Acheampong, 2015:78; Asante, Adjei&Asare, 2013:65). As for in some regions in Central and East Africa where potters are men, it’s absolutely prohibited for women to come to clay area or be near the men masters during pot production (Vincentelli, 2004, s. 55).

In Bantu community living in Sub-Saharan Africa, Among the group of women going to mine clay only one woman digs the clay pit. If these pots made of clay will be successful the hands of that woman is deemed lucky and it’s believed that she must do this job again (Lawton, 1965, s. 170).

Another one of the taboos is related with death. In Babukusu, it’s prohibited to enter clay pits for someone who lost a relative recently or after their funeral, moreover they even can’t do production (Nangendo, 1996, s. 73). As for in Balkans, women who get in touch with someone who dies within recent year, can’t do any production (Vincentelli, 2004, s. 28). The most important factor lying under these prohibitions; the production symbolizing the birth, is contradicting the death phenomenon representing the end of life. It’s thought that the person is polluted as a result of getting in touch with the dead so that because of this pollution pots will crack or break in any one of the stages of the production. With this production will end just like life.

Taking off the shoes and naked feet while entering clay pits, are also encountered among taboos. Otherwise, according to Ghanaian potters, it’s believed that the person mining the clay will be disrespecting the god of soil who’s the protector (Asante, Adjei, &Asare, 2013, s. 64). As for in Bantu community, stepping on the not digged yet clay pit is deemed as a taboo (Lawton, 1965, s. 170). In Zimbabwe, it’s prohibited to bring sharp objects like knife, key and even metal coins when coming to clay pits (Lindahl&Pikirayi, 2010, s. 11). This may be because of avoiding blood spill and preventing pollution in the sacred area. Blood is perceived also as pollution in here.

In some places, there are some rituals performed before mining the clay, during clay mining and after mining the clay. Mongolu potters living in East Mali, sacrifices goat or rooster for gods Spegiht and Toki to forgive them before beginning to mine clay (Acheampong, 2015, s. 78). As for in Kpando, it’s important for a successful production to first get the approval of the goddess of soil and beg her (Asante, Adjei, &Asare, 2013, s. 64). If the clay is being mined for the first time in East and Central Africa, woman potter makes a miniature pot in the clay area and dances around singing ritual songs. This way she shows her respect to clay which will be foundation of her works and makes her a successful potter (Vincentelli, 2004, s. 55). Potters in Botswana don’t argue or gossip during clay mining to honour and respect the Gods and the souls of their ancestors, because the operation is sacred. They believe prayers and rituals have an impact on clay resources so they talk in a low voice and hum traditional songs and chants under the guidance of the oldest one among them (Thebe & Sadr, 2017, s. 290). Also in Balkans, women potters similarly perform their rituals by dancing and singing songs (Vincentelli, 2004, s. 28). Potters in Zimbabwe, must offer a small pile of clay or a bouquet of branches to their ancestors after mining the clay, to make them rest in peace (Lindahl & Pikirayi, 2010, s. 11).


The raw material of the production, the clay having a place in creation myths; has led a relation to be established between human and pot. According to Nangendo (1996:73), pottery production; asa metaphor, implies the cycle of human life and flow of life. Life begins with digging clay (represents the fetus in the uterus) out of the pits. The growing period; creating a pot, drying and firing operations; maturity and broken pieces symbolize the death. For this reason, taboos are often encountered in all of the stages of the production. But clay pits which are deemed as the beginning of life, are in vital importance for other stages of production to be performed.

Rituals performed in clay pits are originated from animism belief. Giving gifts, offerings and sacrificing vows in return of the clay taken form the pits where Gods and souls of the ancestors reside in, is important for the continuity of production. Making them angry is describing the problems that’s possible to be encountered during production. If taboos to be performed here are violated consequences are usually women aborting, going through early menopause, impotency in men and ending of reproduction like infertility. The consequence of getting in touch with the dead, may be loss of functionality with the pot cracking or breaking apart which’s again possible to be encountered during production.

Taboos and rituals encountered in pottery production, imply the nonverbal communication ways that socially organize and coordinate communities therefore structures the production itself (Albero, 2014, s. 237). In communities with similar cultures, it’s possible that taboos and rituals that are encountered nearly in all of the stages of the production, are also similar just like in the Africa example. But as it’s exemplified in the study; despite the geographical and cultural difference, it’s interesting to encounter same rituals in Balkan communities too. Is it possible that the universality in creation myths or in technical stages of the production, is present in here too? In the field studies we carried out on pottery in Anatolian geography where different cultures live together and deeply bind to each other with traditions and beliefs, we have encountered beliefs and taboos about clay mining. As for the practices covering the other stages of pottery production, they will be discussed in the studies which will be carried out as a follow-up of this article. If researches as o whether there are beliefs and taboos of clay mining in Anatolian pottery, researches to be carried out in facilities with on-going production, are reviewed with an anthropological and socio-cultural perspective, it’s esteemed to reveal possible anticipated stories.


Acheampong, A. (2015, June). Investigation Into The Pottery Industry in The Ashanti Region. Gana: Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

Access date: 18 July 2019,

Albero, D. (2014). Santacreu, Materiality, Techniques and Society in Pottery Production, The Technological Study of Archaeological Ceramics through Paste Analysis. Warsaw/Berlin: De Gruyter Open Ltd. doi:

Asante, E. A., Adjei, K., & Opoku-Asare, N. A. (2013). The Theoretical and Socio –Cultural Dimensions of Kpando Women’s Pottery. 3 No:1. doi:ISSN 2222-2863 (Online)

Forni, S. (2007). Containers of Life: Pottery and Social Relations in the Grassfields (Cameroon). 40 No. 1, Ceramics Arts in Africa, pp.42-53. (A. Livingstone, & K. Petrie, Eds.) UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center. Erişim tarihi 21 Mayıs 2014, from

Freud, S. (2017). Totem ve Tabu Büyü, Gelenek, Korku ve Yasak. İstanbul: Kuzgun Yayınevi Dağıtım Pazarlama LTD.ŞTİ.

Gosselain, O. P. (1992, September). Technology and Style: Potters and Pottery Among Bafia of Cameroon. Vol. 27, No. 3 (Man, New Series,). Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Stable.

Gosselain, O. P. (2018 , December). Pottery Chaînes Opératoires as Historical Documents.

Halluska, D. (1999, January 4). Pottery and Progress: Traditional and and Contemporary Pottery in Vume, Ghana. Erişim tarihi: 7 Nisan 2018,

Lawton, A. (1965, June 31). Bantu Pottery of Southern Africa. Master Thesis, I. South Africa: University of Cape Town. Erişim Tarihi: 3 Nisan 2020,

Lindahl, A., & Pikirayi, I. (2010). Ceramics and Change: An Overview of Pottery Production Techniques in Northern South Africa and Eastern Zimbabwe During The First and Second Millennium AD. Ceramics and Change: An Overview of Pottery Production. Lund, İsveç: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. doi:10.1007/s12520-010-0031-2

Nangendo, S. M. (1996, October). Pottery Taboos and Symbolism in Bukusu Society: Western Kenya. 17/2. African Swdy Monographs. Erişim tarihi: 17 Haziran 2019,

Thebe, P. C. (2016). Our Past, Our Present, and, Most Importantly of All, Our Future’: The Role of Potters in Botswana. 48. Erişim tarihi: 8 Mart 2019,

Thebe, P. C., & Sadr, K. (2017, December). Clay sources and contemporary potters in southeastern Botswana. 30(Southern African Humanities ). Botswana: KwaZulu-Natal Museum. doi:ISSN 2305-2791 (online)

Vincentelli, M. (2004). Women Potters - Transforming Traditions. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

William K. Kayamba ve Philip Kwesiga. (2016, November). The role of pottery production in development: A case study of the Ankole region in Western Uganda. 4. Net Journal of Social Sciences. doi:ISSN: 2315-9774

Image References

Image 1 Konkomba potter coming back from the clay pit, North Ghana Region, Africa: (Albero, 2014, s. 239)

Image 2:Dombandola potter, coming out of the underground cave, place of production, Angola, Africa: (Vincentelli, 2004, s. 58)

Image 3:A Darfurian potter in the last stage of shaping, Sudan, 1980 : (Vincentelli, 2004, s. 49)

Image 4:Chandelier embellished with natural pigments prior to firing and dual form, Barbary pottery, Kabylie, North Algeria, 1920 : (Vincentelli, 2004, s. 48)


bottom of page