Making a Good Impression: 5000 years of pottery from the Sahara Sahel borderlands

A large storage vessel being decorated, Burkina Faso, 1996 (Photo: A Livingstone Smith)

5000 years of pottery from the Sahara Sahel borderlands

In 2008, an interdisciplinary and international team of archaeologists, ethnographers and museologists was convened in Oxford and Dakar by Dr Anne Haour (Sainsbury Research Unit [SRU], University of East Anglia) and Katie Manning (UCL and formerly UEA), in order to debate the definition and characteristics of a type of pottery-decorating tool called 'roulettes'.

Sherd and plasticine impression showing a rolled split stick with overlapping cord from Er Negf, Lower Tilemsi Valley, Mali dating to the mid-3rd millennium BC

Roulettes consist of one or several lengths of vegetal fibre, twisted, knotted, folded, wrapped or braided to form a tool, typically around 5-10cm long, that can be rolled across the surface of a clay vessel prior to firing. Roulettes of carved wood, or natural objects such as shells or pine cones, can also be used. This decorative technique quickly and easily produces aesthetically pleasing designs and it has been, and remains, very commonly used throughout Africa, and indeed more widely throughout the world.

Knotted strip roulette, Mambila, Cameroon (Photo: A. Livingstone Smith)

The meetings of the research team involved formal papers as well as the examination of museum holdings. No less importantly, they included unstructured time for discussion and for the sharing of images and materials. Such discussions resolved some of the fundamental inconsistencies and areas of shadow in the description of archaeologically- and ethnographically- documented roulettes.

This initiative has set a new standard for the identification and interpretation of roulette-decorated pottery and open new insights into the cultural meaning of variations in roulette style. Thus, they help this humble tool contribute to the building of our narratives of the West African past.

Related outputs

  • Haour, A., Manning, K., Arazi, N., Gosselain, O., Guèye, S., Keita, D., Livingstone Smith, A., MacDonald, K., Mayor, A. McIntosh, S., and Vernet, R. (eds.) 2010. African pottery roulettes past and present: techniques, identification and distribution. Oxford, Oxbow.
  • Manning, K. 2011. Potter communities and technological tradition in the Lower Tilemsi Valley, Mali. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa.
  • Haour, A. and Manning, K. (eds). 2011. Identity, Fashion and Exchange. Pottery Production in West Africa. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa Special Issue 46:1.
  • Making and Decorating African Pots. Session at the Panafrican Archaeological Association for Prehistory and Related Studies, November 1st – 7th, Dakar, Senegal.


  • Leverhulme Trust (International Research Network)

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