Classification and collapse: the ethnohistory of Zulu ceramic use


  • K. D. Fowler University of Manitoba


Understanding the classification of objects is important for discerning their cultural significance. However, there has been very limited work on modern pottery classification systems of Bantu speakers in southern Africa. The range of ceramic vessels used in Zulu society since the nineteenth century is described in this paper to evaluate the principles producers and consumers use to distinguish different categories of pottery containers and understand why ceramics continue to be produced despite a collapse in the ceramic repertoire 190 years ago. Archaeologists have long utilised the variables of vessel shape, size, and decoration to monitor inter-assemblage variation to infer chronology and symbolise concepts of group relatedness. The Zulu data reaffirm the importance of considering vessel shape and size in deriving a functional classification and demonstrate how certain surface treatments express messages about identity, status, protection, mystification, and appropriate contexts for vessel use. Thus, the Zulu case provides a significant behavioural rationale for including surface treatment as part of a functional classification. It is suggested that the enduring symbolic and ritual significance of pottery in Zulu society and the low capital investment required for pottery-making aid in perpetuating the craft.



How to Cite

Fowler, K. D. (2021). Classification and collapse: the ethnohistory of Zulu ceramic use. Southern African Humanities, 18(2), 93–117. Retrieved from