The Many Uses of a Clay Pot

Anastasia Bete selling earthenware pots at the Ua Bau market in Belu

I first met Anastasia Bete at the weekly market in Ua Bau, Belu in 2008. Mama Anastasia was selling simple but elegant earthenware pots that are still used for cooking corn, beans and vegetables as well as natural dyes over wood fires. She told me that she can only make these pots during the dry season. I bought the pots she had with her and said I would like to visit her in her village to understand how she was making these pots.

While Threads of Life mostly works with weavers making traditional textiles, we also work with basketry artisans. I thought that these classic pots are also important to preserve as an art form. We often see pottery being sold in the local markets in West Timor and whenever possible I try to purchase it. But this time I wanted to see the process directly.

Women selling pots in the Maubesi market near Kefamananu

Villagers carrying goods as the roads in many areas of Timor are in poor condition and transport is scarce

Mama Anastasia explained to me how to get to her village, which is about 25 kilometers from the Ua Bau market by road but only four kilometers if one were to walk, though this meant having to cross a large river. This was the first time I was able to make the journey to her village as it is rather remote and would take almost a full day to get there. This meant finding an additonal day in my schedule of visiting weavers in Timor. Distances are deceiving in Timor, the last two kilometers to Mama Anastastia’s village were rocky and in poor condition.

On our way to Mama Anastasia we passed through the traditional compound of Hanoe. Here we met Mama Katarina Tae and Lusia Bete who were kind enough to show us around. It turned out that they are still making pottery in Hanoe. Unlike many old sites, Hanoe’s traditional house was still in good condition, indicating the community maintains its traditional knowledge of of the rituals associated with the building.

The traditional house in Hanoe

Indigo dyer with earthenware pots

We were surprised to find that many of the women in this community are still making pottery as an important source of income which helps pay their children’s school fees. These pots are bought by local people primarily for the purpose of cooking food but also they are bought by weavers to use for their natural dye work.

Larger pots are used for making arak which is a strong alcohol distilled from the nectar of the lontar palm. Arak sales make up a large percentage of household income for many people throughout Eastern Indonesia as it is important for ceremonies and celebrations.

Large earthenware pots are used for distilling palm liquid into arak. The top of this still has not yet been placed over the pot

Making an earthenware pot

The pots are made only during the dry season. They are made using simple techniques. Earthenware pots are hand built.

The walls are pounded thin using a piece of wood. Afterwards the walls are sculpted with a simple pattern using a piece of wood that has teeth carved into it.

The walls are smoothed with a simple motif from the teeth carved into the wood

Packaging the pots to transport back to Kupang

While we did not make it to the village of Mama Anastasia as it was becoming dark, I hope to get there another time. However, we were able to buy some of the pottery that had just finished drying which we will resell at Threads of Life in Ubud. The pots were packaged for me as they would when taken to market. This helped me get them back as far as Kupang before having to repack them to fly on to Bali. I look forward to my next visit to these villages and to buying more of their beautiful pottery!