Terra cotta, also known as ‘baked earth,’ has been employed as an art medium since ancient times in cultures throughout the world. The natural clay of its composition gives the terra cotta its characteristic orange-brown or reddish-brown color. Depending on the clay, the color will vary, but it may also be readily found in yellow, gray, or other shades. Terra cotta is fired upon drying in order to harden for use. Though not inherently waterproof, terra cotta, even during the period of antiquity, could be waterproofed by burnishing its surface before firing and later applying a glaze which allows the item to become completely waterproof.
As a pottery material, terra cotta has a long history that stretches back to the period of 3000 B.C. to the ancient site of Mohenjo-daro and areas of Mesopotamia. Though the earliest bricks made of clay were left to bake in the sun, objects were eventually fired as a true ceramic for a variety of uses that include functional items like pitchers and pots to funerary statues that were placed in tombs. Though widely used in Mesopotamia and later by Europeans and Pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas, the Chinese used terracotta extensively. In addition, some of the earliest plumbing piping was composed of terra cotta.
While a telltale material for making garden pots today, terra cotta has long been used as a roofing material; the ancients used terra cotta to make roof tiles. Advances in terra cotta production made it appropriate for use in architecture; unglazed terra cotta was a popular architectural material for making facades during the Victorian period for example. Even since the ancient period in many parts of the world terra cotta was used for ornamentation, particularly as relief sculptures. Free-standing sculpture was also widely used among historical artisans.
There are many well-known art works and artifacts composed of terra cotta. One of the most astounding works of terra cotta is the terra cotta army of Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang; the extensive terra cotta army is made up of more than 8,000 life-size warriors, horses, chariots, and weaponry which were buried along with the emperor around the year 209 B.C. The Kantajew Temple terra cotta structure and designs of Bangladesh are also world-famous and date to 1722. Birmingham, England’s Bell Edison Telephone Building is famously designed with architectural terra cotta and red brick. Terra cotta adornment can also be found in China’s Forbidden City.
As an art medium, terra cotta has long been favored as a sculpting and ceramic material because it is easy to mold and is an easily procured natural material. Though a staple of ancient art design, terra cotta is still widely used around the world as an art medium today.