Monday, March 06, 2017

Four Thousand Years Of Pottery

For what is a part of a municipality (Marratxi), Portol attracts a surprisingly large amount of attention. It was once the place where opposition to bingo being banned (or restricted) at fiesta time was at its strongest. It is better known for its antics of last week when burying the sardine prior to the start of Lent. But it also has a very strong claim to being the centre of a manufacturing tradition which is probably Mallorca's oldest - around four thousand years old.

Marratxi's "fang" fair, which lasts until Sunday, celebrates the clay that goes into pottery and the making of ceramics, and Portol, along with Palma, Inca and Felanitx, has been one of the principal locations for ceramics since at least the eighteenth century. This "modern" manufacturing tradition disguises, however, the very much older tradition, one started by the first settlers in Mallorca.

Giving a precise date for these settlers is somewhat elusive, but it is generally accepted to have been in the late third millennium BC, so around 2200BC. Even this can't be stated with complete certainty as the oldest sites, such as the dolmen of Son Baulo (Can Picafort) and s’Aigua Dolça (Colonia Sant Pere), are reckoned to be from the early part of the second millennium BC. Let's just say that it was a fair old time ago.

It is the dolmen burial sites which provide evidence of some of the earliest pottery, but the evidence is not abundant. There are fragments of bowls but not a lot else. The actual settlements themselves - in caves - were almost certainly not permanent. They were seasonal and the number of inhabitants very modest. The Balearics were not the most hospitable of islands, primarily because, unlike other Mediterranean islands, they were a long way from the mainland.

Settlements were to eventually become permanent, it is believed, because of general turmoil that led to migration for purely peaceful reasons. Archaeological findings indicate, for instance, a lack of the type of weapons that were being used elsewhere. Structures that were created were not fortifications. The Balearics, very much on the periphery, were islands to live without being threatened by the violence that otherwise prevailed. Being a distance from the mainland was to have its advantages.

Pottery and other evidence suggest that these settlers came from Catalonia and southern France. It was the naviforme period from around 1600BC during which more obvious and permanent settlements were established. Excavations at sites of these boat-shaped structures have revealed far greater evidence of pottery; various receptacles which showed something of a technological advance - the use of calcite.

It is really when one comes to the Talayotic period (the proto one from around 1100BC and the "high" one from about 900BC) that a distinct culture and society was formed, and among the ceramic innovations were vases with handles that resembled a bull's head. Otherwise, the shapes, as with examples from Talayotic sites such as S'Illot, acquired a certain uniformity - some round, some vertical, some with handles, some without.

Subsequent invasion and occupation - the Romans and, much later, the Arabs - introduced wholly new approaches to pottery. The Romans brought with them the potter's wheel and a demand for the amphora, the large terracotta container with two handles that was mainly used for oil and wine. The Arabs were to introduce far greater ornamentation, with glazed finishes and - at the top of the range - small pieces of gold or silver. Ceramics came into their own with house building, drainage and irrigation.

But what of Portol in all this? Clearly, pottery required the right sort of earth, which there is. Another factor in the development was the existence of large almond trees. The shells from almonds were used to fire kilns. The local ceramics industry is reckoned to have been around for some 400 years. It was established by potters who found there earth that was a reddish colour and rich in clay. The pots that were made were to eventually be sold across the island and also exported. The concentration of businesses was never as great as in Palma - there were 43 workshops in the city in the late eighteenth century - but ones from the mid-nineteenth century, such as Sa Roca Llisa, are still with us.

And one of the products it makes is the curious siurell, of which it is said that the day when it is most typically bought is 30 June, the day of the Sant Marçal pilgrimage. Where does the "fang" fair take place? At the Sant Marçal showground, just a potter's throw away from Portol.

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