Terra Cotta

popular material for decorating arts and buildings since ancient time

Tina S
Tina S
Jun 7, 2010
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Terra Cotta is an Italian word, Terra means “Baked” and Cotta means “Soil”. In Latin is pronounced like “terra cocta”. Terracotta is a ceramic material that has been used for building construction and decorative arts since ancient times in cultures around the world. 

Terracotta has been used throughout history for sculpture and pottery, as well as bricks and roof shingles. 

In ancient times, the first clay sculptures were dried (baked) in the sun after being formed. Later, they were placed in the ashes of open hearths to harden, and finally kilns were used, similar to those used for pottery today. However only after firing to high temperature would it be classed as a ceramic material.

Crude terra-cotta female figurines were uncovered by archaeologists in excavations of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, two large urban sites of the Indus Valley period (3000-1500 BC). Along with phallus-shaped stones, these suggest some sort of fertility cult and a belief in a Mother Goddess.The Burney Relief is an outstanding terracotta plaque from Ancient Mesopotamia of about 1950 BC.

Terracotta was widely used in the decorative arts of ancient China, perhaps most famously in the tomb soldiers of 2nd century BCE emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Terracotta vases and other sculptures are known from ancient Egypt, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, West Africa, and Central and North America. Terracotta pipe was also one of the oldest materials used in plumbing.


In India:

Perhaps the most common form of pottery in India, terracotta pops up in almost every state. Votive figures of elephants, serpents, birds and horses are made in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and the Jhabua and Bastar regions of Madhya Pradesh. Quite similar to these are the horses of Darbhanga in Bihar which are painted in bright rainbow colors once they are made.

Another place known for its magnificent, six-metre high terracotta horses is Tamil Nadu.

Terracotta panels and storage jars painted white and decorated with tiny mirrors are common in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Molela in Rajasthan excels in sculpted terracotta plaques and icons of Rajput heroes and Hindu deities.

Orissa and Madhya Pradesh have a charming tradition of decorative roof top tiles, made partly by hand moulding and partly on the wheel. These tiles, shaped like half tubes, have perched on top of them figures of elephants, monkeys, bears, reptiles, gods and goddesses and are considered a status symbol among the rural people.

The terracotta pottery of Madhya Pradesh is simply remarkable, especially that practiced by the tribals of Bastar. Traditional statues of elephants, serpents, birds and horses from Bastar are incomparable in their simplicity and are offered to the local deity as an offering in lieu of sacrifice. 

In Europe:

Though terracotta largely fell out of use in Europe during the Middle Ages, its use in building and sculpture revived in the Renaissance, and it has remained an important material into the modern era. Construction methods improved over the ages, as terracotta was once baked in the sun, later dried among ashes in the oven, and finally kiln-fired. 

While terracotta was used to make roof tiles and bricks in the ancient world, it became more versatile as a building material during the Renaissance, when it features in the ornate decorations of buildings in the newly developed Gothic style. Terracotta was also a popular material for artistic sculpture in the Renaissance.


The Gothic revival style of architecture in the 19th century likewise made heavy use of terracotta, and the material became increasingly used for structural elements such as walls. The durability of terracotta and its resistance to both fire and water make it an ideal building material. 

It is also lighter than stone, and modern methods allow it to be glazed in a wide variety of colors, including finishes that resemble stone or metal patina. Terracotta is a relatively inexpensive material, and glazing increases its durability and helps it retain its original look. 

The color varies slightly depending on the clay used. Some specialists think it’s a color between orange and brown. Terracotta may be glazed for extra durability or to provide color. It is a waterproof and very sturdy material, and many ancient terracotta sculptures are still in excellent shape.

French sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse made many terracotta pieces, but possibly the most famous is The Abduction of Hippodameia depicting the Greek mythological scene of a centaur kidnapping Hippodameia on her wedding day. American architect Louis Sullivan is well-known for his elaborate glazed terracotta ornamentation, designs that would have been impossible to execute in any other medium. Terracotta and tile were used extensively in the town buildings of Victorian Birmingham, England.

As compared to bronze sculpture, terracotta uses a far simpler process for creating the finished work with much lower material costs. Reusable mold-making techniques may be used for series production. Compared to marble sculpture and other stonework the finished product is far lighter and may be further glazed to produce objects with color or durable simulations of metal patina. 


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