The Storied History and Enduring Life of Terra Cotta

February 26, 2018 by

 Contemporary terra cotta pot from Eye of the Day Garden Center.

You’ve likely strolled through garden centers stocked with hundreds of ubiquitous terra cotta nursery flower pots in the usual shapes and sizes. 
But did you know that this simple pottery is descended from ancestors who played a significant role in human history dating back to the Stone Age?

Terra Cotta pots from Eye of the Day Garden Center.

Terra Cotta in Ancient Times
Terra cotta, also known as earthenware, translates from the Italian as “baked earth.” The oldest fired and unfired clay figurine sculptures date back to 26,000 BCE during the paleolithic era. From these terra cotta sculptures of female figures, known as Venus Figurines, paleoanthropologists discovered that prehistoric cultures valued some form of artistic expression. 

Venus of Dolni Vestonice, 29,000–25,000 BCE, oldest known terra cotta figurine. Photo via British Museum.

Ancient humans baked this pottery in the sun or in open fires. With the advent of agriculture, people needed durable pots for food preparation so they began building special ovens for baking bread which they also used for firing their utilitarian pottery.

Arts and Crafts building decorative terra cotta facade. Photo, Mary Ann Sullivan.

From Fireclay to Facades
Terra cotta has a storied history in applications calling for a naturally durable and enduring material. For centuries, architects and builders used the readily available, inexpensive, and lightweight terra cotta. The Babylonians constructed their palaces, temples and statues with terra cotta.

In the late 19th century, artisans shaped the detailed decorative facades of Arts and Crafts buildings with terra cotta, many of which still stand today with most of their details perfectly preserved. And because it’s fireproof, after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, the city began constructing terra cotta buildings made from locally sourced clay, many maintained as architectural landmarks.

Terra cotta facades of architect Renzo Piano’s St. Giles Court in London. Photo, Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

A  Natural, Sustainable, and Enduring Material
Interest in terra cotta is growing along with consumer fervor for all things natural and sustainable. Today, many contemporary architects use the ancient material in the construction of their modern skyscrapers, demonstrating that what’s old is new when it comes to enduring features. Iconic architect Renzo Piano incorporated brightly hued glazed terra cotta tiles into the design of the Central St. Giles Court in London. Each of the original facades of London’s Victoria and Albert museum is accentuated with intricate decorative terra cotta ornamentation including reliefs, mosaics and tiles, all common features found in Roman architecture.

Walls of designer Joost Bakker’s home constructed with terra cotta pots. Photo, Antarctica Architects.

Environmentalist Joost Bakker, known for his inventive large-scale vertical garden designs using ordinary nursery pots, formed many of the exterior walls of his Australian residence using thousands of these small terra-cotta pots filled with strawberry plants.

Quality Reigns Supreme
Terra cotta’s diversity lends itself to unlimited design applications. Design choices are as numerous as terra cotta’s functional qualities—from glazed and unglazed, simple and ornate antique pots, to modern-day renditions handcrafted using ancient methods.

Grey French Anduze pot from Eye of the Day Garden Center.

French Anduze Pottery
Found in natural finishes and colorful glossy antiqued glazes like those of the rich French Anduze pottery, the range of terra cotta colors varies according to the origin and amount of iron in the clay as well as the particular firing method.

French Anduze pot from Eye of the Day Garden Center.

Italian Galestro Terra Cotta
Pottery made from high quality Italian frost proof Galestro clay will outlast your garden, whereas pots made from an Italian clay from Sienna or Mexico, like many found at most local garden stores, will flake and crack and cannot withstand freezing temperatures.

 Contemporary Greek pottery, Eye of the Day Garden Center. 

Greek Terra Cotta
The ordinary nursery pot’s characteristic reddish-brown cast is the result of clay with a high iron content, but terracotta colors can vary from yellow to gray to pinkish. Greek pots fired in gas-fired kilns instead of those using olive pits produce a rosy color.

Frost Proof Terra Cotta
Firing temperatures and the purity of clay affect the color, but also the quality. Lower quality clay with added sand and fired at low temperatures will produce a more porous, less water-resistant, pot than one crafted of a purer clay fired at high temperatures. The more durable high fired Italian Galestro terra cotta is frost proof to minus 15 degrees, will withstand cracking, and does not require sealing to render it waterproof.

 Greek pottery from Eye of the Day Garden Center.

Terra cotta pots of all sizes, shapes, colors, and origins can function as significant design elements in a traditional as well as contemporary gardens. Some are planted, some stand alone as garden art, and others with a little modification can be transformed into soothing water features. In the future, the wealth of today’s diverse landscapes including terra cotta in their design will be referenced as those that are as timeless as the pottery itself.

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