Preserving the art of Markham clay pots

The sacred art of pottery making is very much alive today in Markham district, Morobe Province. The clay pots of Markham are as popular as they are important; they are their identity, wealth and social status.

The people of Markham, especially Zumim, will have the opportunity to showcase their culture and the skills that have been passed down for generations in the recently-launched ‘Markham Pottery Show’, which is scheduled to take place by the end of this year.

President of the Markham District Women’s Council, Ludy Jacob, was a proud Zumim woman who led her group to welcome a delegation from the National Cultural Commission to Mutzing Station, on Thursday, April 4th.

“People at Umi, Ragiampun and Zumim make clay pots,” she said.

“I go to the mountain to dig up clay, I cross the river, I beat it up to remove debris, give to my mother to roll and give to my uncles to shape the clay pot.

“We get clay from Namuan, our mountain. We cross the Markham River to get there. We walk for 2 hours to come to this cave where we dig up the clay. In that cave, we do not speak Tok Pisin. It is prohibited to speak Tok Pisin in the clay pot area.

“We also do not wear Western clothes. We must wear ‘purpur’ and go into the bush, where the clay will show itself to us. When we wear Western clothes and go in, the clay will hide. And when we bring clay back to the village and beat it to make clay pot, the pot will keep breaking. That’s why we follow our traditional rules and go in traditional attire to make strong clay pots.”

The practice of clay pot making is sacred; no outsiders are allowed.

Nature is respected.

“Only the indigenous people will go in to dig the clay and bring back,” said Jacob.

“There’s one woman inside who will dig and send it outside, and the woman outside the cave mouth will get it and pass on to the waiting mothers further out, who will then wrap it in leaves.

“A 10kg bag of clay is extremely heavy. When we carry one 10kg bag of clay, we have to rest three or four times before reaching the village.”

In big events, the people of Markham go back to the ways of their ancestors; they peel food using pig or cow bones fashioned as knives and put them in their clay pots, which are made using hand-building techniques.

Zumim woman, Wendy Michael, explained that the “special soil” from Mt Namuan, called ‘gur’, is placed on a wooden slab and beaten with a wooden paddle until all debris are removed.

“After we beat it, we fold it and leave it for the men, who have their instruments to make the pot.”

The smooth clay, after being beaten, is shaped into a pot and left for a week.

“We don’t immediately use it after the men have shaped it into a pot,” explained Jacob. “The men will leave it at home for a week then we will put it in the fire. We fire the clay until it is baked. We then rub banana around the bottom and then we can cook in it.

“You will notice the different styles of our clay pots. The ones with handles and decorated with birds or snakes are for proteins. The ones without handles are for strong food.”

Michael further added: “Our ancestors’ way of life is important to us, the people of Markham. The younger generation needs to learn about it. Nowadays, young people are leaving the villages and they do not learn the ways of our people. This is why we must continue the age-old traditions so they can learn about them. They must know their customs.”

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