Terra cotta

Terra cotta

Terra cotta (Italian: "baked earth") is a ceramic. Its uses include vessels, water & waste water pipes and surface embellishment in building construction. The term is also used to refer to items made out of this material and to its natural, brownish orange color.

Production and properties

An appropriate refined clay ("grog") is partially dried and cast, molded, or hand worked into the desired shape. After further thorough drying it is placed in a kiln, or atop combustible material in a pit, and then fired. After pit firing the hot ware is covered with sand to cool, and after kiln firing the kiln is slowly cooled. When unglazed, the material will not be waterproof, but it is suitable for in-ground use to carry pressurized water (an archaic use), for garden ware, and sculpture or building decoration in tropical environments, and for oil containers, oil lamps, or ovens. Most other uses such as for table ware, sanitary piping, or building decoration in freezing environments require that the material be glazed. Terra cotta, if uncracked, will ring if lightly struck, but not as brightly as will ware fired at higher temperature, which is called stoneware. The fired material is relatively weak compared to stoneware.

Some types of terra cotta are created from grog made from recycled terra cotta.

The unglazed color after firing can vary widely, but most common clays contain enough iron to cause an orange, orangish red, or brownish orange color, with this range including various colors described as "terra cotta". Other colors include yellow, gray, and pink.


Terra cotta 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. The most famous terra cotta statues are those of the "Terracotta Warriors" in China.


Significant uses of terra cotta have included Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army of China, built in 210–209 BC. Mass producers of mold-cast and fired terra cotta figurines were also the ancient Greeks of Tanagra. French sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse made many terra cotta 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 terra cotta ornamentation, designs that would have been impossible to execute in any other medium. Terra cotta and tile were used extensively in the town buildings of Victorian Birmingham, England.

Precolonial West African sculpture also made extensive use of terra cotta [H. Meyerowitz; V. Meyerowitz (1939). "Bronzes and Terra-Cottas from Ile-Ife". "The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs" 75 (439), 150-152; 154-155.] . The regions most recognized for producing terra cotta art in this part of the world include the Nok culture of central and north-central Nigeria, the Ife/Benin cultural axis in western and southern Nigeria (also noted for its exceptionally naturalistic sculpture), and the Igbo culture area of eastern Nigeria, which excelled in terra cotta pottery. These related, but separate, traditions also gave birth to elaborate schools of bronze and brass sculpture in the area.

Crude terra-cotta female figurines were uncovered by archaeologists in excavations of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, the two large urban sites that tell about the Indus Valley period (3000-1500 B.C.E.) in Hindu history. Along with phallus-shaped stones, these suggest some sort of fertility cult and a belief in a Mother Goddess. [Jacob Neusner, ed. World Religions in America. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.]

In chemistry, pieces of terra cotta are used as a heterogeneous catalyst to "crack" long-chain alkanes. This process is useful for obtaining more useful products, such as gasoline or petrol, from less useful ones, such as highly viscous long chain alkanes.

Advantages in sculpture

As compared to bronze sculpture, terra cotta 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. Robust durable works for outdoor use require greater thickness and so will be heavier, with more care needed in the drying of the unfinished piece to prevent cracking as the material shrinks. Structural considerations are similar to those required for stone sculpture.

ee also

*List of colors
*Architectural terra cotta
*Glazed architectural terra cotta
*Terracotta Army

External links

* [http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/terracot/terracot.htm Article on terracotta in "Victorian and Edwardian Terracotta Buildings"]
*Bibliography, Smithsonian Institution, [http://www.si.edu/RESOURCE/FAQ/nmah/ceratile.htm Ceramic Tiles and Architectural Terra Cotta]
* [http://www.tileheritage.org/ Tile Heritage Foundation] (US)
* [http://www.preserve.org/fotc/ Friends of Terra Cotta] , non-profit foundation to promote education and preservation of architectural Terra Cotta
* [http://www.tilesoc.org.uk/ Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society] (UK)
* [http://funtasticus.com/20070817/the-terracotta-army/ More photos of Terracotta Army'] ------


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Terra cotta — Terra Ter ra, n. [It. & L. See {Terrace}.] The earth; earth. [1913 Webster] {Terra alba} [L., white earth] (Com.), a white amorphous earthy substance consisting of burnt gypsum, aluminium silicate (kaolin), or some similar ingredient, as magnesia …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • terra-cotta — 1722, from It. terra cotta, lit. cooked earth, from terra earth (see TERRAIN (Cf. terrain)) + cotta baked, from L. cocta, fem. pp. of coquere (see COOK (Cf. cook) (n.)). As a color name for brownish red, attested from 1882 …   Etymology dictionary

  • terra cotta — [ter΄ə kät′ə] n. [It, lit., baked earth < L: see TERRA & COOK] 1. a hard, brown red, usually unglazed earthenware used for pottery, sculpture, etc. 2. its brown red color terra cotta adj …   English World dictionary

  • terra-cotta — [tɛʀakɔ(t)ta] n. f. ÉTYM. 1923; mot ital., de terra « terre », et cotta « cuite ». ❖ ♦ Techn. Argile dégraissée, fortement cuite, utilisée pour la décoration architecturale …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Terra cotta — (ital.), gebrannte Thonerde, deren Farbe bald lichter, bald dunkler roth ist, auch wohl nur gelblich, welche indeß durch Anstrich od. Firniß jede beliebige Farbe erhalten kann; sie war im Alterthum sehr gebräuchlich zu Geschirren, plastischen… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Terra cotta — (ital.), s. Terrakotta …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Terra cotta — Terra cotta, ital. d.h. gebrannte Erde, bezeichnet die aufgefundenen antiken Arbeiten aus Thon (von Griechen, Etruskern, Römern), theils lufttrocken, theils gebrannt, mit aufgetragenen oder eingebrannten Farben, auch mit Vergoldungen und… …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • terra-cotta — /ter euh kot euh/, adj. made of or having the color of terra cotta. [1865 70] * * * (Italian; baked earth ) Fairly coarse, porous clay that, when fired, assumes a colour ranging from dull ochre to red. Terra cotta objects are usually left… …   Universalium

  • terra cotta — /kot euh/ 1. a hard, fired clay, brownish red in color when unglazed, that is used for architectural ornaments and facings, structural units, pottery, and as a material for sculpture. 2. something made of terra cotta. 3. a brownish orange color… …   Universalium

  • terra-cotta — 1. noun a) An unglazed hard baked clay pottery b) A reddish brown colour, like that of terra cotta. 2. adjective Of a reddish brown colour, like that of terra cotta …   Wiktionary

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