Bisalhães black pottery manufacturing process

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Inscribed in 2016 (11.COM) on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding

© 2015, by Paulo Araújo

Bisalhães in Portugal is known as ‘the land of pot and pan producers’ or more specifically, where black pottery is made. Designed for decorative and cooking purposes, the traditional practice that features on the village’s coat of arms has been an important part of the community’s identity, with old methods still used today to create pieces resembling those of the past. Several steps are involved in making black pottery. First, the clay is crushed with a wooden hammer in a stone tank before it is sifted, water added to it, then kneaded, formed, defined using various laths, smoothened by pebbles, decorated using a stick and finally fired in a kiln. The division of work has evolved over time with the labour-intensive clay preparation now assigned to men, while women still mainly decorate the pots. Furthermore, clay used in the process is now sourced from local tile factories instead of being extracted from pits. Transmitted almost exclusively through kinship ties, the future of the practice appears in jeopardy due to a diminishing number of bearers, waning interest from younger generations to continue the tradition and popular demand for industrially-made alternatives.

Crushing the clay with a 'pico' (wood hammer) in a stone tank ('pio')
Screening the clay with a sifter
Mixing the sifted clay with water, inside a bowl and kneaded with the help of the hands, making the 'beloiros' (kneaded clay balls)
'Pele de barro' - 'clay skin', made with up to four 'beloiros' (kneaded clay balls), a large piece of clay ready for storage
Potter António Jorge Romalho working at the low-wheel
Noémia Rocha burnishing (polishing with a little stone from the river) the pottery
Maria de Fátima Macário decorating the pottery
Piling up the pottery in the kiln, in Bisalhães
Firing the pottery in the kiln
Taking the pottery out of the kiln