World Ceramics: How was it made?

The shrine head is made of terra-cotta ("baked earth"), a naturally occurring clay. Although porous, when fired it increases in strength and can hold liquids without returning to its PLASTIC state.

Terra-cotta is composed of earth containing organic and mineral substances that give it a reddish brown color. IRON OXIDE produces this distinctive color when the clay is fired. The color is also affected by other minerals present and by the firing temperature. Ife pieces were most likely fired in an open wood fire. It required great skill to control the temperature and make the firing even, to prevent dark patches from forming on the object. The final color ranged from dark brown to orange, buff, tan, or pink. Ife shrine heads were most likely painted as well; traces of pigment can sometimes be found on parts of the face and neck.

The use of fired clay for making vessels probably began in Africa, where terra-cotta pottery has been found dating from the eighth millennium B.C. The earliest sculptural terra-cottas, mostly hollow-built heads, were excavated in northern Nigeria and date from around 500 B.C.

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