Archive for the ‘Geophagy’ Category

Viva Tonalá

September 21, 2014

Pottery history has it’s share of odd tales.  This is an odd tale. 

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain mentions a Central American “scented clay.”  Pots made from this clay were supposedly popular in 17th century Spain.  I lived a for a few years in Central America.  I regularly interacted with local potters, anthropologists, archeologists, cultural ministry personnel, and other field workers on several ceramics related projects during my time there.  None of us had ever heard of such a clay. 

But that’s not the odd part.  There really was a sort of scented clay – rather a clay that caused flavored effervescence and aroma in water kept in burnished pots made from it.  This pottery was called “Tonalá Bruñida.”  The bright red extremely low fired clay wasn’t from Central America however.  It was mined uniquely in Guadalajara, Mexico.  And  every Central American knows that Mexico is part of North America.  Water in Tonalá pots (until the mine tapped out in the 18th century) fizzed even more when stirred. 

But that’s not the odd part.  Aristocratic Spanish ladies were crazy for Tonalá water jars and mugs.  Drinking from these vessels caused a psychotropic, almost opium-like effect.  The visiting French Countess D’Aulnoy described how after drinking this water the Spanish ladies “went into a trance.  Their stomachs became distended and hard and their skin turned into a yellow color like that of a quince.” 

But that’s not the odd part.  French ladies hated Tonalá.  They thought water kept in these pots tasted like dirt.  They got no psychotropic thrill from drinking the water.  They were disgusted by the smell of it. 

That’s probably not so odd.  Anyway, the very low temperature at which Tonalá was fired made it extremely fragile.  Breakage was common.  That was a good thing, because the Spanish ladies got an extra buzz by eating the broken shards and dust.   This was positively too barbaric for the French ladies.  Even the adventurous Countess D’Aulnoy, who gave it a try, later confided “I would have preferred to eat sandstone…”

The odd part (to me anyway) is how this situation was seemingly looked upon as simply a ladies “vanitas” activity.  Bubbly, intoxicating drinks and chewy, cosmic pottery?  Where were the gentlemen?

Readings:

Cerámica y Cultura.  Gavin, Pierce and Pleguezuelo, eds.  University of New Mexico Press/Albuquerque.  2003.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

 

Advertisements

Lemnian Earth

March 23, 2014

“The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain” can be a fun read if you don’t mind digging a bit (and if you have no life outside the study of historical pottery).  This dated compendium of minutia concerning all things European includes some pretty odd entries.  But other entries present interesting perspectives on early pottery.  The following description of Lemnian Earth is one such entry:

“A medicinal clay found in the Greek islands of Lemnos and Samos, of great repute for its alleged curative properties.  The clay was prepared and worked into small cakes or tablets, and impressed with a seal by the guardian priestesses of Diana, hence the name given to it; ‘Terra Sigilata,’ or ‘sealed earth.’”

People have used clays for medicinal purposes since before there were even ‘people.’  Archeologists indicate Homo Habilis probably ate calcium rich white clays.  Eating clay, “geophagy” to be precise, has been practiced throughout the ages and on every continent.  Geophagy claims many medicinal benefits beyond being a source of calcium.  Clay absorbs toxins.  It soothes spleen and kidney complaints. Some even say eating certain clays increases sexual behavior.  But there are probably more efficient ways of achieving that last goal in this enlightened age.

Getting back to Lemnian Earth, Bernard Palissy offered a charming little footnote.  He said it was “nothing else than a kind of marl or clayey soil, which is dug deeply… They say that the aforesaid is very astringent.  And since they draw benefit from the aforesaid clay, they open their clay pits every year with great pomp accompanied by ceremonies.”

“Great pomp accompanied by ceremonies.”  My own clay comes from nearby Sheffield Pottery Supply, Inc.  It is dug and processed right there on site.  When I get a new batch, I simply open a bag and get to work.

Yes we live in an enlightened age.  I’m not sure what purpose would be served by eating Sheffield clay.  But I admit a touch of nostalgia for the magic surrounding the old Lemnian clay pits. 

Readings:

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element.  Suzanne Staubach.  Berkley Hardcover/New York.  2005.