Used with permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" by Alex G. Malloy, updated by Joseph Sermarini.
Terracotta is a type of hard-baked clay, produced by means of a single firing. usually rendered brownish red in color after firing, terracotta may be glazed (covered with a layer of molten glass) but is most often left in its natural state, sometimes called "buff" pottery.
Terracottas were initially hand molded. Later came the development of the clay mold, with which the artisan could push the soft clay into the mold, and produce a fine terracotta on the spot. This was certainly one of the first examples of mass production. This mold could provide a limited number of copies before it lost definition. The results were beautiful. The Greek terracotta craftsman was called coroplast, which is Greek for "doll maker." These terracottas were mass produced, and almost anyone in the society could afford them.
Figurative terracotta includes terracotta statuettes and other small portable objects. Terracotta figures were used either for religious purposes, as tools for the veneration of the gods and goddesses, or for secular purposes, as toys for the living and gifts from friends for the departed. Both full figures and heads are widely collected today. A warning to the collector: full standing figures are, much more often than not, highly restored. The heads were broken off at a shrine and offered to the god. They are usually not found complete. Along with the humanesque heads, terracotta animals are also collected. Babylonian and other Mesopotamian terracotta plaques are available along with the later Parthian man-on-horse terracottas.
Architectonic terracotta was made as decorations for buildings. Architectronic terracottas are most often found in areas where marble was scarce. Fine examples have been found in Magna Graecia and in Corinth. Objects include be beam ends, rainspouts, friezes, and pediment sculptures. Figurines and reliefs follow and exemplify the lines of stylistic development of the larger sculptures, e. g. Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. This field of collecting can be one of the most rewarding. A fine collection can be assembled today.
Terracotta goddess figures were manufactured in large numbers in Mesopotamian areas. The Early Northern Syrian Mesopotamian terracotta figures depict the "mother goddess," with large breasts. The nude goddess with her arms raised to her breasts was popular for a very long time and made in many periods. These terracottas often had a flat back like a plaque. These figures were ritually broken and are rarely found complete. Early mother goddess and primitive idol figures have been the subjects of special shows in Paris, London, and New York.
From 5000 - 4500 B.C. fertility gods were popular in the Middle East. Many areas produced idol figures, including Canaan, Anatolia, North Syria, Cyprus, Amlash, Uratu, Northern Pakistan, and India. The goddess Astarte was worshiped in Canaan in the late Bronze Age. Bizarre Syro-Hittite terracotta heads have long been an interesting type of collectible.
Greek terracottas offer archaic, classical and Hellenistic sculpture of Greek art in the round at much more affordable prices than stone sculpture. Early Greece produced "mother goddess" figures at Thessaly, and Mycenae, Boeotia. Even the Vinca culture of Yugoslavia produced early idol figures. The periods of Greek terracotta range from: 1) Prehistoric: 2000 - 1100 B.C. Crete (Minoan-Mycenae); 2) Dark Ages 1100 - 650 B.C. Geometric, Cyprus, Crete; 3) Archaic: 650 - 500 B.C. Rhodes, East Greece, Boeotia, Cyprus; 4) Classical: 500 - 330 B.C. Rhodes, Boeotia, Attica, Corinth, South Italy, Sicily, Crete, Melos; 5) Hellenistic: c. 330 B.C. - 100 A.D. Attic-Boeotia (Tanagra), Alexandria, South Italy, Myrina, Smyrna. Greek terracottas were the finest made in ancient times. The very finest Greek terracotta figures were made at Tanagra in the first half of the 4th century B.C.
Greek Terracotta Characteristics
Small quantity of mica
Cream: greenish; orange
Yellow ochre: pale orange-brownish
Fine before 500 B.C.
Orange: cream: purple-brown
Large mica crystals
Pale orange cream
Encrusted with chocolate-brown
Pale orange-light greenish gray
Most colors except greenish
Small quantity of mica
Terracotta sculptures from central Asia
include many interesting examples from the Indus Valley cultures, particularly figurines and chariot models.
Terracotta was used extensively in ancient Egypt
from the earliest times particularly for the production of sculptures of various sized. Pottery
sculpture on a small scale
- statuettes, effigy vessels, figurines, and the like - was an important part
of Roman-Egyptian daily life. Pottery
sculpture representing deities, animals
, objects, people, and even toys, is found in large quantities in Roman-Egyptian sites. Because of this, Roman period Egyptian sculpture is relatively cheap on the antiquities market. The Roman-Egyptian terracottas produced are of Egyptian and Greek deities. The quality is cruder than the Hellenistic period, but often attractive. These terracottas were manufactured with a light red-brown clay. Pottery
sculpture of earlier periods is rarer, although tomb models and other magical figures such as New kingdom
"concubine figures" appear with some regularity on the market.
Roman terracottas from outside Egypt
are harder to find.
For terracotta oil lamp references see the lamps page.
Central Asian Terracotta Casal
, J.-M. "Mundigak: l'Afghanistan ŗ l'aurore des civilisations" in Archeologia
, No. 13, Nov. 1966, pp. 30 - 37.
Tripathi, V. & Srivastava, A.K. The Indus Terracottas
. (New Delhi, 2014).Urmila
, S. Terracotta Art of Rajasthan (From Pre-Harappan and Harappan Times to the Gupta Period)
. (New Delhi, 1997).Zwalf
, W. ed. Buddhism Art and Faith
. (New York
Western Asiatic Terracotta
Legrain, L. Ur Terra-cottas Catalogue. (Unpublished). PDF available online.