Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Ranko Barišić
WHEN MARRIED WOMEN TREAD, SQUEEZE, KNEAD, FIRE…
“It is difficult to give gifts to the rich and wine and dine the well-fed.”
There are various pottery techniques in the Balkans. So far, the ethnological literature has described four such techniques: 1. pottery made by hand – known as women’s ceramics, 2. pottery made on hand-powered wheels, 3. pottery made on foot-powered wheels, and 4. pottery made in molds.
In terms of the original division of labor, production of earthenware was handled by women. In time, the production of pottery items became a craft, and men took it over, which has remained so ever since. Unlike most other places in Europe, in our region the aforementioned pottery techniques live on. Due to the rather uneven economic development, as well as the strong tradition, the folk autochthon pottery is very diverse. This is reflected both in technology and in shapes of objects made in Serbia. Folk pottery, however, has not withstood various influences, which contributed to the increase in the product assortment.
“Crepulja” (a shallow clay container with a little hole in the middle) and “vrsnik” (a lid) were made in some parts of Serbia until the last decade of the 20th century. The raw material (clay) for these types of pottery can be found almost anywhere in Serbia. Clay for production of such items was once mined in open pit mines. It was prepared in such a fashion that it was treaded, occasionally moistened, then sifted through bags, and left to dry. It was not supposed to be too dry or too wet. The prepared earth was cleaned of straw, chaff, splinters and other impurities. It was then again treaded with bare feet to eliminate hard pieces. After the treading, clay was kneaded, occasionally moistened, and then left to dry for a while. Pottery was fired outdoors (in some places, in the middle of the village). It was covered with live coals and ashes to be baked evenly. Firing lasted several hours. These objects were usually made in spring or autumn. In some places, “crepulja” and “vrsnik” were made exclusively by women before Vidovdan (St. Vitus’ Day), like, for example, in Visocko near Pirot.
This relatively simple production of pottery items is rare today. “Crepulja” and “vrsnik” had to be made exclusively by married women, hence the term “women’s ceramics”. While working, women were not allowed to be pregnant or have their periods.
Pottery is still made on hand-powered wheels in the village of Zlakusa near Uzice. Several decades ago, pottery was also made on hand-powered wheels in the vicinity of Novi Pazar, in Oholje, in Djakovica in Kosovo and Metohija, and in Korenita near Uzice. Such pottery items were made from sandy clay with a certain mixture of calcite where the ratio is 2:1 or 1:1. The thus-prepared clay was placed on a hand-powered pottery wheel. A potter ran the wheel with one hand, and shaped clay with another. Items were made from a single lump of clay and were simple. Those were cooking and baking dishes, as well as ones used for food storage. Heaters were also made on hand-powered wheels. These varied in size, from ten centimeters to one meter in height, or more. Pottery made on hand-powered wheel was rough in texture and without particular decorations. The rim of some pots was embellished with curving lines. The bottom of dishes showed marks in the form of single or double crosses in the circle and the like.
The foot-powered wheel technique was introduced to old Balkan peoples probably through the Byzantine Empire, back in the Middle Ages. The new technology introduced also a number of decorations, variety of colors and ornaments in our lands. At the same time, it represented technically more refined pottery compared to previous techniques. Pottery made on a foot-powered wheel was glazed, with light and dark brown, yellow, and green being the most frequently used colors, and to some extent blue. The term “foot-powered wheel” is self-explanatory.
Production of pottery made on foot-powered wheels spread throughout the territory of Serbia, both in cities and villages. Potters sold their products to the population of different ethnicities and different religions, both in rural and urban areas. Pottery produced on foot-powered wheels involved widely used objects: musical instruments – ocarina and goblet drum, craft supplies, for example, molds for “culav” (a woolen cap worn under a fez), cult objects – censers, crosses, candlesticks, cups and iconostases, daily use objects, containers for preparing, cooking, baking and storing food – lunch boxes, pitchers, cooking pots, baking pans for meat, platters, milk jars, coffee pots, double flutes, and water troughs for poultry.
A special group of pottery items included those that were used in the wedding ritual, such as pitchers, various flasks and flagons for brandy, wedding beakers, jugs; and decorative objects: beakers, bowls with and without spouts, various jugs, casks, etc. Money boxes in the shape of horse, pig, deer, bear, hedgehog and other exotic animals were used daily. Ceramic inkwells were also made, as well as vases and ashtrays in the shape of “opanak”, the traditional Serbian footwear. Following items were in everyday use in rural areas: heaters, funnels, oil lamps, various bottles for storage of wine, brandy, and oil, as well as containers for a variety of balms. Household guardians were made in Eastern Serbia and placed on the roofs of houses.
Pottery made on foot-powered wheels had to be dried first. Crafted pieces were placed on a board close to the roof or in the attic of the workshop. They were left in the attic to dry for a month. Then they were put in kilns, have by potters themselves from mud, dry earth and bricks. These wood-burning kilns were located near workshops. Pottery was fired for twenty four hours and then cooled for another ten hours. Modern-day kilns are electric-powered.
Over the centuries, all three pottery techniques -women’s ceramics, pottery made on hand-powered wheels, and pottery made on foot-powered wheels – existed on our soil simultaneously.
The production of pottery made in molds was introduced in Serbia in the mid-19th century. Immediately after the liberation, the Turks still made pipes in molds in some places in Belgrade. This type of pottery existed in Serbia through the 20th century, but to a lesser extent than the aforementioned technologies.
Ceramic production techniques particularly developed after the Two World Wars. Pottery products were sold at fairs in cities and especially in spas throughout Serbia. Making a mold was very simple. A plaster mold was divided into two parts. The center was hollowed-out in the shape of a desired object and clay was pressed into the mold. Children’s toys were made in molds.
The production of various decorative and utility ceramic items as a vocational activity is still present in many parts of Serbia. Dishes for the preparation of food are highly sought-after products, because the so-called wedding cabbage dish in a clay pot or potatoes and roast baked using a special iron pan called “sac” have a “unique and unrepeatable “flavor’’. Residents of Zlakusa and surrounding villages on Mt Zlatibor have realized that the combination of traditional skills and new trends in the field of ethnotourism may mean an opportunity for secure jobs and economic prosperity.
Decorative ceramic items – pitchers, candleholders, figurines and the like have always been favorite gift items and held a special place in households. In addition to fairs, such items, marked and signed like those in famous world workshops, are now sold in specialty shops, galleries and museum shops.
Pottery courses have enabled many people to make unique items for themselves and their friends, while also opening the possibility to find new ways not only for entertainment, but employment and income as well.