African roulettes

A very prevalent and highly characteristic method by which African pottery has been and still is decorated is through the use of twisted, knotted, braided lengths of straw or cord, rolled over the surface of the pot before it was fired. Carved wood cylinders, sea shells, crenelated discs, or hair curlers can also be used, in fact practically anything that can roll…

The method has been used for several thousands of years, worldwide. The best known examples are from Japan, Africa, and Europe. The famous Jomon pottery – the first pottery in the world – was decorated using twisted pieces of cord 9500 years ago, as were some types of Bronze Age and Neolithic pottery later on in northern and central Europe. The Romans seem to have used crenellated discs. And, by the way, some of the corn dollies which are one of the ‘specialities’ of East Anglia were made using similar principles (obviously for different reasons though – in that case, to celebrate the harvest festivals, not to decorate pots). This was, thus, a widely used technique, arrived at independently (we assume!) in various parts of the world.

As for the African material, here are some examples of roulettes from the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford: the top one is from Sudan, and is an example of a ‘roulette on multiple indpendent cores’: here one (or several) cords have been interlaced around four thin sticks. Find out more about its context of collection on the Pitt Rivers Museum online catalogue entry for this object. The three at the bottom are from Katsina, Nigeria; they are made by braiding at least five strands or reeds. Find out more about their context of collection on the Pitt Rivers Museum online catalogue entry for this object.

Sudanese and Nigerian Roulettes from Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (PRM accession numbers: 1979.20.27, 1930.43.25-28). Photo: ach, © PRM

Such tools are rolled or impressed over the surface of the pot before it is fired, resulting in a pattern of convex or concave shapes running in rows. It’s often quite difficult to picture without actually seeing a real example. Here is an experimental item, made by rolling a roulette from the British Museum over a blob of clay.

Knotted strip roulette (British Museum, Accession number Af1946.18.176). Photo: Julie H

This was a roulette made of four strands of grass, gathered at one end and interlaced to produce a knotted roulette. Here is a real-life pot from Cameroon, decorated with another type of knotted strip roulette, involving just a single fibre:

Storage pot decorated with a fine graphite glaze and a knotted strip roulette (British Museum Ethno 1969.Af35.84). Photo: ach

The sorts of evidence that archaeologists discover are less impressive since we never find the roulettes, and very rarely the whole pots, just the (often heavily eroded) potsherds. Below is an example of the sort of thing one might find archaeologically (and bear in mind that the one shown here would be classed as a beautifully-preserved specimen):

Potsherd (right) recovered from excavations at Birifoh (SiLayiri), northern Ghana (Malik Saako Mahmoud, University of Ghana-Legon); and its impression in plasticine (left). Photo: ach

This sherd was once part of a vessel decorated using a braided strip roulette.

You can see many more of these examples on our Archaeology Data Service archive, which was put together by a number of colleagues including several of the Crossroads team. In fact, we think roulettes are so nifty that we wrote a book about the things. See also on this blog the separate page Africanist bibliographic resources.


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About this blog

This blog has been set up to chart the activities and research findings of two projects led by Anne Haour, an archaeologist from the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom.

The first project, called Crossroads, brings together a team of archaeologists, historians and anthropologists studying the Niger Valley where it borders Niger and Bénin (West Africa). We are hoping to shed more light on the people that inhabited the area in the past 1500 years and to understand how population movements and craft techniques shaped the area's past.

The second project, called Cowries, examines the money cowrie, a shell which served as currency, ritual object and ornament across the world for millennia, and in medieval times most especially in the Maldive Islands of the Indian Ocean and the Sahelian regions of West Africa. We hope to understand how this shell was sourced and used in those two areas.

These investigations are funded by the European Research Council as part of the Starting Independent Researcher Programme (Seventh Framework Programme – FP7) and by the Leverhulme Trust as a Research Project Grant. The opinions posted here are however Anne Haour's own!

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