A Brief History of Terracotta

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A unique clay that is celebrated for its rich, reddish orange hues, Terracotta has been used in sculptural art, architecture, and pottery for centuries by civilizations across the globe. Holding a prominent place in history, the material’s many modern uses include a diverse range of design applications—from tiles, mosaics, and pottery to architectural decoration, building construction, and brickwork. Terracotta is a naturally long-lasting and vested with versatility. The information the follows includes a brief overview of the terracotta’s history and characteristics.

Overview and Origins

Taking its name from the Italian word for baked earth, terracotta is a porous clay-based material that is baked in a kiln or by heat from the sun. Since the benefits of baked clay have been long understood, ancient examples of terracotta use abound, and have been found in a range of locations including the Mediterranean, Africa, Pakistan, the United States, and more.

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Included amongst the most famous examples of terracotta use are China’s Terracotta Army—a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting soldiers and horses crafted more than 2,000 years ago—as well as the oldest-known terracotta sculpture, Venus of Dolni Vestonice, which dates back to 26,000-24,000 B.C.E. With a thick and malleable texture, terracotta has long been favored for sculptural use, but the material also maintains prominent ties to design and architecture due to its durability and aesthetic appeal. Terracotta roofs, also referred to as clay tile roofs, provide enduring benefits that include reflecting heat back into the atmosphere for energy efficiency.

Characteristics and Composition

As a type of ceramic called earthenware, terracotta is baked at a temperature that is lower than other ceramic types and is, as a result, comparatively more porous. Earthenware is fired at a temperature that can range from 1,800 to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. During the period of antiquity, pieces of terracotta were left to harden and bake in the hot sun, while pieces that were produced before kilns were fired in the ashes of open fires.

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Sedimentary clay, which contains organic and mineral impurities, is used to form earthenware clays, and terracotta’s notorious red color comes from iron oxide deposits in the clay. The iron content in terracotta’s clay body reacts with oxygen to create a unique range of colors that can encompass reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks. While not inherently waterproof, terracotta can be left unglazed or it can be finished with a glazed topcoat to add a water protectant layer.

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