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Beauty from Baked Clay – Djenné Djenno Terracotta Art


The Djenné-Djenno terracotta figurines are a unique form of African art created by the ancient people of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation, which flourished in modern-day Mali from around 250 BC to at least AD 900. The figurines were made from clay and used for various purposes, including religious ceremonies, burial rituals, household decorations and personal jewellery. In this paper, I will look at some of the key features that make these figurines unique.

Ancient Origins
The Djenné-Djenno civilisation was located in what is now Mali and is thought to have been one of the oldest known cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Archaeological evidence suggests that the culture was founded around 250 BC and lasted until around AD 900[2], when it was abandoned, probably due to climate change and environmental degradation. The city[3] was a major centre of trade and commerce, with goods such as gold, ivory, and salt being traded with neighbouring regions.

The Djenné-Djenno terracotta figurines were likely created during the later period of the culture’s existence.

Bound figure; circa 12th to 15th century AD; terracotta; Krannert Art Museum (Illinois, USA)
Title: Bound figure; circa 12th to 15th century AD; terracotta; Krannert Art Museum (Illinois, USA)
Attribution: Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Page URL:,_Jenne_people,_Jenne-Jeno,_Inland_Niger_Delta_region,_Mali,_c._12th_to_15th_century_AD,_terracotta_-_Krannert_Art_Museum,_UIUC_-_DSC06152.jpg

This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Variety of Styles
The art, known as Djenné-Djenno figurines, is known for its wide variety of styles, sizes, and shapes, reflecting the diversity of the Djenné-Djenno culture. Some of the most common types include human and animal figures and more abstract or stylised designs. The figurines ranged in size from a few centimetres to over a metre in height and were created using various techniques such as moulding, stamping, and sculpting. Some figurines were also painted with natural pigments to add colour and texture.

Terracotta Material
The figurines are made from terracotta, a type of clay that is fired at high temperatures to create a durable and hard-wearing material. The terracotta used in the Djenné-Djenno figurines was often mixed with organic materials such as straw or grass to make it more pliable. Terracotta is used to create pottery and other ceramic objects and is known for its durability and ability to withstand high temperatures, making it an ideal material for creating things that need to survive over time.

 Decorative Techniques

Title: Terracotta seated figure; 13th century; earthenware; 29.9 cm (113⁄4 in) high; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, USA) The raised marks and indentations on the back of this hunched Djenné figure may represent disease or, more likely, scarification patterns. The facial expression and pose could depict an individual in mourning or in pain.
Attribution: Wmpearl, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Page URL:,_13th_century,_Djenn%C3%A9_peoples,_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art,_1981.218.JPG

This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The Djenné-Djenno figurines were decorated with intricate patterns and designs using various techniques, including incising, stamping, and sculpting. These techniques were used to create intricate designs and patterns on the surface of the figurines, such as geometric shapes, animals, and human figures. The figurines were also sometimes adorned with jewellery or other accessories, such as hats or necklaces. Some figurines also feature applied decoration, such as beads or shells, that add texture and detail.

Cultural Significance
The Djenné-Djenno figurines were not just decorative objects but were also imbued with cultural significance. They were often used in religious ceremonies, burial rituals and ceremonial contexts and were believed to have spiritual power and protective qualities, and were seen as representations of the spiritual world. Some figurines may have also served as amulets or talismans to protect the owner from harm or to bring good luck.

Artistic Influence
The Djenné-Djenno figurines have significantly influenced African art and culture of the region for centuries. They have inspired contemporary African artists and influenced the development of traditional African pottery. The stylised human figures and animals depicted in the figurines have become an important symbol of West African art and culture, and their distinctive styles and techniques have been copied and adapted by artists and artisans throughout the region.

UNESCO Heritage Site
The figurines are a unique and important example of African art and culture. The city of Djenné, which was the centre of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation, has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site[4]. This designation recognises the cultural and historical significance of the city and its artefacts, including the terracotta figurines. The site is home to the remains of the ancient city and its terracotta figurines, as well as other artefacts and structures that provide insight into the history and culture of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation. It is also recognised for its unique architecture, which includes mud-brick buildings and the famous Great Mosque of Djenné.

Map Description automatically generated
Title: Djenne-locmap2
Attribution: See Page URL.
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Unique Features and Comparison to Other Forms of African Art
Djenné-Djenno figurines are imbued with a stylised, abstract form, using geometric shapes and symmetry. They often depict human or animal figures, which are elongated and attenuated, with exaggerated limbs and elongated heads. The figures are decorated with incised lines, raised dots, and other surface decorations, which add texture and detail.

Compared to other forms of African art, those from Djenné-Djenno are distinctive in several ways:

  • They are notable for their technical sophistication and attention to detail, evident in their finely detailed features and intricate surface decorations.
  • They are unique in using abstract forms, emphasising geometric shapes and symmetry, rather than naturalistic representation.
  • Djenné-Djenno figurines often depict scenes from daily life or mythology, which provide insight into the beliefs and cultural practices of the civilisation. For example, some figurines show women grinding grain, while others depict musicians, dancers, or warriors. These depictions suggest that the figurines were used for religious, ritual, or social purposes, and they provide a valuable source of information about the civilisation’s social and cultural practices.

Other forms of African art, such as the sculptures of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the masks of the Dan people of Liberia, or the textiles of the Ashanti people of Ghana, also have distinctive styles and techniques. However, they often emphasise different themes or use different materials whilst reflecting the specific cultural and historical contexts of their respective regions.

Djenné-Djenno art is remarkable for the technical skill and abstract style of its production and its cultural significance, and they offer a unique window into the artistic and cultural practices of the civilisation.

Gender and Identity
The Djenné-Djenno terracotta art is notable for its depictions of gender and identity. Some figurines are highly stylised and abstract, while others are highly detailed and realistic. Many figurines depict both male and female figures, often with highly stylised features that may indicate social status, gender roles, or spiritual significance. For example, some figurines have been identified as female due to their physical characteristics, such as the presence of breasts. Other figurines may have been used to represent different aspects of identity, such as age or social status.

The terracotta figurines were not just art objects but were also used for various purposes, including religious ceremonies, burial rituals, and household decorations. Some figurines were used as weights, while others were used as votive objects or ceremonial purposes. Some figurines were also used in divination or healing rituals and were believed to have spiritual powers. Some figurines may have also served a functional purpose, such as serving as containers for food or water. The figurines were often placed in tombs as offerings to the deceased or used in religious ceremonies to honour the spirits of the ancestors.

Local Materials and Techniques
Using techniques passed down from generation to generation, developed over centuries of practice, the terracotta figurines were created using local materials reflecting the unique character of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation. The terracotta was often mixed with sand or other materials such as grog[5] to make it more durable, and the figurines were often decorated using local plants or minerals to create vibrant colours and patterns. The clay used to create the figurines was sourced from the local area. Creating the figurines was a community effort, with different individuals specialising in the various aspects of the process, such as moulding, firing, and decorating.

Historical Significance
The figurines are important not just for their artistic and cultural value but because they are also an important part of the history and culture of West Africa. They provide unique insights into the beliefs, practices, and social structures of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation and shed light on the early history of African art and culture.

Providing a unique glimpse into the lives and beliefs of the people who lived in the region over a thousand years ago, the figurines have helped researchers to understand better the social, religious, and cultural practices of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation and have also provided valuable insights into the development of African art.

Preservation Challenges
Due to the fragile nature of the clay, the Djenné-Djenno terracotta figurines face several challenges to their preservation, including exposure to the elements, theft, and looting. The Djenné-Djenno site has also been threatened by urbanisation and development and by conflicts in the region. Efforts underway to protect and preserve the site and its artefacts for future generations include establishing museums and conservation programs in the area. However, many figurines have been lost to time or destroyed due to neglect or theft.

Artistic Styles
The figurines display a range of artistic styles and techniques, which have evolved over time. The earlier figurines tend to be more naturalistic and detailed, while later examples became more stylised and abstract. Some of the figurines have intricate hairstyles, jewellery, and clothing, which may provide clues about the fashion and social status of the time. The human and animal figures depicted in the figurines are often elongated and exaggerated, with exaggerated features such as extended arms or legs. Some figurines also feature intricate designs and patterns, such as geometric shapes or symbols.

Trade Networks
The Djenné-Djenno civilisation flourished in the Niger River Valley, which was located at a strategic location at the crossroads of major trade routes. Its position at the confluence of the Niger and Bani Rivers made it a hub of trade and commerce, connecting the Saharan and sub-Saharan regions. The people of Djenné-Djenno were skilled craftsmen, particularly in producing terracotta figurines, now famous for their distinctive style and quality. It is believed that the people of Djenné-Djenno traded with the neighbouring regions, including the Sahara, the Sahel, and the forested areas to the south. They traded gold, salt, ivory, and slaves, among other goods, and the terracotta figurines may have been one of the products they exchanged.

It is thought that the figurines were produced in large quantities, possibly in specialised workshops, and were then distributed across the trade networks. The figurines may have served as luxury items or status symbols, or they may have had religious or ritual significance. In any case, they are evidence of the sophisticated craftsmanship and artistic skill of the people of Djenné-Djenno, and they offer a glimpse into the rich cultural and economic exchange that characterised the civilisation.

Religious and Spiritual Significance
The Djenné-Djenno people had a complex religious and spiritual belief system reflected in the figurines. Many figurines are believed to have been used in religious or spiritual rituals or ceremonies, and some may have been considered sacred objects seen as representations of the spiritual world. For example, some figurines depict hybrid animals or creatures, which may have been associated with supernatural powers or beliefs. The figurines were also sometimes used as offerings to the spirits or as amulets or talismans to protect the owner from harm or to bring good luck.

Significance of Mud Architecture
Mud-brick architecture is a defining feature of the Djenné-Djenno buildings. Using that construction method likely influenced the creation of the terracotta figurines and vice versa:

  • Mud-brick was the primary building material used to build homes, public buildings, and religious structures, like the Great Mosque of Djenné.
  • The figurines were often created using local materials, such as clay and sand, and were decorated with intricate patterns and designs using local plants or minerals to create vibrant colours and patterns.

The Great Mosque of Djenné is an excellent and iconic example of how the local mud-brick architecture influenced the mosque’s construction:

  • The mosque is constructed entirely from mud-brick.
  • Its striking architecture features intricate patterns and designs, including decorative terracotta elements, likely influenced by the figurines’ decorative techniques.
  • It is an adobe Islamic building in central Mali and one of Africa’s most famous buildings. At fifty-two feet high, it is the largest mud-brick building in the world and is an example of Sudano-Sahelian architecture[6]. It was first built in the 13th century and, along with the Old Towns of Djenné, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988[7].

Title: The Great Mosque in Djenné, Mali
Attribution: Dr. Ondřej Havelka (cestovatel), CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:,_Mali.jpg

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Technological Advancements
The production of the figurines required a high degree of skill and knowledge. The figurines were made using various techniques, such as coiling, modelling, and firing. The civilisation was also known for its metallurgical and agricultural advancements, evident in other artefacts found at the site. For example, specialised kilns for firing the clay and moulds to create consistent shapes and sizes were developed. The figurines also required a significant amount of artistic skill and expertise to complete, and the production of the figurines was likely a substantial source of economic and cultural activity in the region.

Social and Political Structures
The Djenné-Djenno civilisation was a complex society with a hierarchy of social and political structures. The figurines provide some insight into the roles and status of men, women, and children in society, as well as the cultural practices and beliefs, as explained below.

Hierarchy of Social and Political Structures

  • The society was divided into several social classes, primarily determined by occupation and wealth. The upper classes comprised ruling elites, wealthy merchants, and religious leaders. The lower classes were composed of artisans, farmers, and labourers.
  • At the top of the hierarchy were the ruling elites, the political and religious leaders of the society. They controlled the allocation of resources, maintained social order, and were responsible for the administration of justice. The elites also regulated trade and maintained diplomatic relations with neighbouring societies.
  • Wealthy merchants were also part of the ruling class, as they controlled much of the trade in the region. They were involved in the export of gold, ivory, and slaves to other regions and traded with Arab and European merchants.
  • The religious leaders played a crucial role in society, as they were responsible for maintaining the spiritual and moral well-being of the community. They were also responsible for performing rituals, such as sacrifices and offerings, which were believed to maintain the balance between the human and spiritual realms.
  • The lower classes, such as artisans, farmers, and labourers, were largely responsible for producing goods and services that sustained the society. They were also responsible for maintaining the infrastructure of the society, such as building and repairing the walls and irrigation systems that protected and supported the community.

Insights revealed through the terracotta figurines
The terracotta art produced by the Djenné-Djenno civilisation provided valuable insights into the roles and status of men, women, and children in society, as well as the cultural practices and beliefs of the community:

  • The figurines were created to serve various functions, such as representing deities, ancestors, animals, toys, amulets, jewellery and teaching aids.
  • Figures depicting humans are particularly valuable in providing insights into the social and gender roles of the society. For example, some show men and women with distinct clothing and hairstyles, emphasising they were used as markers of social status and gender identity. Other figurines depict women with exaggerated breasts and hips, indicating that fertility and childbearing were highly valued in the society. The figurines also depict children engaged in play and education, suggesting that children were valued members of the community and that education was an important part of their upbringing.
  • The figurines also reveal insights into the spiritual and religious beliefs of the society. For example, some figures depicted animals and deities believed to have spiritual powers and were worshipped by the community. Other figures show scenes from daily life, such as farming and hunting, which suggest that the society was closely connected to the natural world and that agriculture and hunting were important economic activities.

It is important to note that some figurines may have been used to depict specific individuals or groups, such as rulers or warriors. The figurines may have been used to represent different social classes or roles within the community or to communicate important cultural or religious beliefs. The figurines may have also been used to assert political power or establish social hierarchies.

Comparing the Djenné-Djenno Terracotta Figurines with the Chinese Terracotta Army
While the Djenné-Djenno terracotta figurines and the Chinese terracotta army were both created using the same materials, there are some significant differences between the two. The Chinese terracotta army is a collection of life-size terracotta sculptures that were buried with the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, in 210-209 BC. The purpose of the terracotta army was to protect the emperor in the afterlife. The figures depict soldiers, horses, and chariots and were made using moulds and other advanced production techniques.

Title: File: [Chinese] Teracotta army pit 1 20090717-05.JPG” by Hans A. Rosbach is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Title: File:Archer Figure, Inland Niger Delta Style, Inland Niger Delta region, Mali, 13th-15th century, Ceramic (2922764607).jpg” by Cliff from Arlington, Virginia, USA is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

On the other hand, the Djenné-Djenno terracotta figurines are generally smaller and more varied in terms of their shapes and designs. The figurines were likely created using simpler techniques and were used for a wider variety of purposes.

The Chinese terracotta army and the Djenné-Djenno terracotta figurines are significant cultural artefacts, but they differ in terms of their purpose, scale, and production techniques.

Environmental Factors
The decline of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation has been attributed to environmental factors, such as desertification and drought. The region around Djenné-Djenno is located in the Sahel, a semi-arid region prone to periodic droughts and fluctuations in rainfall. As the climate changed, the availability of water and resources became limited, making it more difficult for the people of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation to sustain their way of life.

The impact of these environmental factors on the creation and use of the figurines is not entirely clear. It is possible that the decline of the civilisation led to a decline in the production of the figures, as the people of Djenné-Djenno had to focus on more practical needs such as food and water. It is also possible that the decline of the civilisation led to a change in how the figurines were used, as the people of Djenné-Djenno had to adapt to changing conditions.

One theory is that the figurines were used as part of religious ceremonies and rituals to help mitigate the effects of drought and other environmental challenges. For example, some figurines may have been used in rainmaking ceremonies, which were designed to bring rain to the region during periods of drought. The figurines may have been seen as powerful objects that could help to influence the natural world and bring about change.

The people of Djenné-Djenno were forced to adapt to changing conditions, and this likely had an impact on the way they created and used art objects such as the figurines. Despite the challenges they faced, however, the people of Djenné-Djenno were able to create a rich and diverse artistic tradition that continues to inspire and fascinate people to this day.

­­The Role of Women
Women played an important role in the production of the figurines, although the exact role of women in the production of the Djenné-Djenno figurines is not entirely clear. However, it is known that women predominantly performed pottery making and other crafts in many traditional West African societies, and women likely played a significant role in creating the figurines. Women had various roles and responsibilities, including agricultural work, food processing, and craft production. They were also involved in the local economy, and their participation in trade was important for the overall economic well-being of the community.

The production of the figurines would have required a range of skills and expertise, including the mixing of the clay, the shaping of the figurines, and the application of decorative elements. It is possible that women played a key role in these processes, as they had a great deal of experience with clay and other materials used in pottery and other crafts. In many traditional West African societies, craft production was an important source of income and a means of expressing cultural identity. Women skilled in craft production were often highly valued and respected members of their communities. Women who were involved in the production of the figurines likely held a similar status in Djenné-Djenno society.

The role of women in the production of the figurines may have also reflected broader gender roles and social hierarchies in Djenné-Djenno society. While men held positions of power and authority, women’s contributions to the local economy and cultural production were also significant. The creation of the figurines may have been one way in which women could express their creativity and cultural identity and assert their social and economic importance within the community.

Legacy and Concluding Words
The Djenné-Djenno civilisation left a lasting legacy in several areas, including architecture, art, and social organisation. One of the most significant legacies of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation is its architecture, specifically the well-known Great Mosque of Djenné, which is considered a masterpiece of Sudano-Sahelian architecture. The mosque, built in the 13th century AD, is made entirely of mud bricks and is one of the largest mud-brick structures in the world. It symbolises the civilisation’s architectural and engineering expertise and continues to serve as a focal point for the community’s religious and social life.

Another lasting legacy of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation is its art, particularly its terracotta figurines. These figurines, known for their distinctive style and technical skill, offer insights into the civilisation’s cultural and religious practices, and they continue to inspire contemporary artists and scholars. Mali is known for producing beautiful and intricate clay pottery, often figurines or sculptures depicting animals, people, or objects from daily life. These figurines are typically handcrafted using traditional techniques passed down through generations and are usually baked or fired in kilns to give them strength and durability. The resulting figures are highly valued as artworks and are often collected or displayed in museums and galleries.

Malian pottery art is characterised by intricate designs and motifs, often incorporating patterns and shapes inspired by the natural world. Figurines are a common form of pottery art in Mali and are typically handcrafted by skilled artisans using traditional techniques. One of the most famous forms of Malian pottery art is the terra cotta sculptures from the ancient city of Djenné. Malian pottery art continues to thrive, with many artisans continuing to create beautiful and intricate figurines using traditional techniques. These figurines are highly valued as works of art and important cultural artefacts, representing Mali’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

The civilisation’s social organisation also had a lasting impact, serving as a model for subsequent West African societies. It was characterised by complex social hierarchies and economic specialisation, and it served as a hub of trade and commerce in the region. This legacy of trade and economic exchange continues to shape West Africa’s economy today.

The Djenné-Djenno civilisation’s legacy is a testament to its technological, artistic, and social achievements, and it serves as a reminder of the rich cultural diversity and innovation that have characterised West Africa for thousands of years.

In conclusion, the Djenné-Djenno terracotta figurines are a rich and complex representation of the culture and history of the Djenné-Djenno civilisation. They provide insights into this ancient society’s artistic, religious, social, and technological advancements and are an important reminder of Africa’s rich cultural heritage.


Picture Credits for the above are shown in the End Notes[8]

 Sources and Further Reading

Books and Academic Papers:

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CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

End Notes and Explanations
  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Commentary: Although the lifespan is usually give as 250 to 900 BC, some reports suggest the jenne-Djenno culture lasted until 1100 BC, or even later.
  3. There is evidence it may have been the centre of a larger culture, but since the region lacked written language at this time, it is difficult to ascertain definitively. Source:
  4. Explanation: A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific or other form of significance. Source:
  5. Explanation: Artists—either men or women—modelled the figures by hand, using clay mixed with grog—crushed potsherds (a piece or fragment of earthenware or pot that is made of fired or baked clay). Source:
  6. Explanation: Sudano-Sahelian architecture refers to a range of similar indigenous architectural styles common to the African peoples of the Sahel and Sudanian grassland (geographical) regions of West Africa, south of the Sahara, but north of the fertile forest regions of the coast. This style is characterised by the use of mudbricks and adobe plaster, with large wooden-log support beams that jut out from the wall face for large buildings such as mosques or palaces. These beams also act as scaffolding for reworking, which is done at regular intervals, and involves the local community. Source:
  7. Source:
  8. Picture Credits:1. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Title: Female figure on her knees; 15th-18th century; Indianapolis Museum of Art (USA). Attribution: Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.  Page URL:,_jenne,_figura_femminile_in_ginocchio,_xv-xviii_secolo_01.jpg

    2. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Title: Figure with arched back; 15th-18th century; Indianapolis Museum of Art (USA). Attribution: Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons. Page URL:,_jenne,_figura_incurvata,_xv-xviii_secolo.jpg

    3. Title: Bound figure; circa 12th to 15th century AD; terracotta; Krannert Art Museum (Illinois, USA). Attribution: Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Page URL:,_Jenne_people,_Jenne-Jeno,_Inland_Niger_Delta_region,_Mali,_c._12th_to_15th_century_AD,_terracotta_-_Krannert_Art_Museum,_UIUC_-_DSC06152.jpg

    4. Title: Equestrian figure; circa 13th –15th century. Attribution: Franko Khoury, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Page URL:

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