Beer-drinking vessel



Zulu peoples
20th century, before 1980
more object details

General Description

Zulu women make izinkamba (sing. ukhamba) in different shapes and sizes for brewing, transporting, storing, and drinking beer This vessel is for drinking beer. Like all Zulu ceramic vessels, it was made with clays found in the local environment, by hand, and without the benefit of a potter's wheel. A coiling technique is employed. After the vessel has been formed, it is burnished, fired twice, then treated with surface finishes. Raised decorations are applied when the vessel is leather hard; that is, the surface is firm but has not lost all of its moisture content. The pyramidal forms were made by first marking or piercing a small hole on the surface of the vessel where the decoration will be placed. Next, the artist takes a small lump of clay and attaches it over the mark in a twisting motion. The plain areas are burnished with a hard, smooth object not only to give sheen to the vessel, but also to compact the surface particles. Firing is accomplished out of doors in a shallow pit in two stages. The first firing produces a red to yellowish bisque texture, sometimes with black flame marks. The second firing blackens the vessels through a process of reduction (lack of oxygen) and carbonization.

While vessels for storing, serving, and drinking beer have been made by the Zulu for hundreds of years, blackened terracotta vessels are thought to date from only the 19th century, either during the reign of Shaka (1787-1828) or the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The earliest ceramics, which were made by hunter-gathers and found in archaeological sites, date to at least the 2nd century BCE. The various Nguni-speaking peoples that followed, from ca. 1150-1820, both agriculturalist and pastoralists, made clay vessels for domestic and ritual uses. These were single fired and red or buff colored. At that time, waterproof basketry was the major form of utilitarian vessel, including for serving and drinking beer. Scholars of Zulu beer vessels question the rise in Zulu ceramic use after the late 1800s. One theory is that the Zulu wanted to distinguish their vessels from those of the Zhosa peoples, which were made of waterproof basketry.

Among the Zulu, drinking beer is not only a human social activity but one that is shared with their ancestors, for whom they make smaller embellished vessels. Ancestors' vessels tend to be smaller than this one. The beer is lifted out of the vessel with a ladle or drunk directly from the ladle. But, it can also be drunk from the vessel itself. The richly decorated surface may be functional as well as aesthetic because the uneven surface may serve to give a grip on the vessel when it is slippery with beer.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2013.

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