What Is Terracotta?


Terracotta, a term that literally means "baked earth" in Italian, is one of the oldest crafting materials known to humanity. Used for thousands of years, this natural clay-based ceramic has been a foundation for sculptures, pottery, and construction materials across various cultures. In this exploration, we delve into the properties, uses, and historical significance of terracotta.

What is Terracotta?

Terracotta is a type of earthenware that is composed of natural clay. This clay is notable for its rich, red-orange color, which comes from the iron oxide content within it. The material is shaped, dried, and then fired in a kiln at relatively low temperatures compared to porcelain or stoneware, resulting in a porous and unglazed texture.

According To THESPRUCECRAFTS. One of its earliest reference points was in prehistoric art, with some of the oldest pottery of time being found as far back as 24,000 BC. Interestingly, these early pieces were found to be Palaeolithic terracotta figurines, rather than cooking vessels, as you might expect, demonstrating how widely terracotta has been used in the art. Perhaps, terracotta’s most famous use in art was China’s Terracotta Army, which is a magnificent collection of terracotta figures of over 8,000 soldiers and 520 horses. It was found in the First Emperor of China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum (246 to 208 BCE, but not discovered until 1974 by local Chinese farmers). Terracotta is widely preferred for sculpture, given its thick and malleable texture and eases to be molded. It’s a far easier material to work with than say marble or bronze. Terracotta also has a close link to architecture, most commonly in roof tiles and brickwork, as it’s incredibly durable, beautiful in color and one of the cheapest clays to work with.

What is Terracotta Called?

What is Terracotta Called?

Terracotta, a material renowned for its deep, earthy color and sturdy yet simple composition, is as old as civilization itself. Often recognized by its Italian name meaning "baked earth," terracotta is known by various names across different cultures, particularly in its widespread use in pottery.

Global Nomenclature of Terracotta

While "terracotta" is the commonly accepted term internationally, the material's versatility in pottery and construction has led to numerous other names:

Terrakotta - In Germany and some Scandinavian countries, the material is spelled slightly differently but retains the same pronunciation and meaning.

Baked Earth - An English translation of the Italian "terracotta," used to describe the material in its simplest form.

Argilla Cotta - This term is occasionally used in Italy when referring to the specific type of clay used before it's shaped and fired.

Cultural Variants and Pottery Terms

In the realm of pottery, terracotta is known not just for its material composition but also for its cultural adaptations:

Cotto - In Italy, particularly in regions famous for pottery, "cotto" signifies any terracotta object that has been perfectly fired, often used in reference to both functional and decorative pieces.

Barro Cocido - Spanish for "cooked clay," this term is prevalent in Spain and Latin America, where terracotta pottery plays a significant role in both historical artifacts and modern crafts.

Faience - In France, faience refers to a type of pottery that uses terracotta as a base but is distinguished by its vividly colored glazes.

Specific Pottery Forms

Different forms of terracotta pottery are recognized under various special names, depending on the technique, glaze, or region:

Earthenware - A broad category in pottery, earthenware includes all pottery types made from clay that is fired at lower temperatures, with terracotta being a prime example.

Majolica - This refers to a pottery technique originating in the Italian Renaissance, where terracotta pieces are first coated with a white tin glaze and then painted with metal oxide colors.

Stoneware - Though technically distinct, terracotta pieces fired at higher temperatures can resemble stoneware in durability and water resistance, blurring the lines between these categories.

How Is Terracotta Made?

How Is Terracotta Made?

Terracotta, renowned for its rustic charm and rich, red hue, has been a staple in both artistic and functional creations for millennia. 

Sourcing the Clay

The first step in the creation of terracotta is the extraction of clay. The quality and characteristics of clay can vary significantly depending on its geographical source. Typically, terracotta is made from a readily available type of clay known as earthenware clay, which contains a high amount of iron, giving the material its distinctive red color.

Preparation of Clay

Once the clay is extracted, it undergoes a thorough purification process. This involves removing impurities such as rocks, roots, and leaves, which can affect the quality and integrity of the final product. The cleaned clay is then mixed with water to achieve the right consistency for molding.

Shaping the Clay

Shaping is a pivotal phase where the craftsman's skills come to the forefront. The clay can be shaped by hand, thrown on a potter’s wheel, or pressed into molds, depending on the desired outcome. Each method offers a different aesthetic and texture, making this stage crucial for defining the unique characteristics of the final terracotta piece.

Drying Process

After shaping, the terracotta must be dried slowly to prevent cracking. This drying process can take several days and is typically done at room temperature. The rate of drying is crucial; too fast can lead to cracks, while too slow may encourage mold growth.

Firing the Clay

The most transformative step in making terracotta is firing, which is done in a kiln. The clay objects are heated to temperatures between 1000 and 2000 degrees Fahrenheit (540 to 1100 degrees Celsius). This high heat causes the clay to undergo a chemical transformation, hardening it and setting its shape permanently.

During firing, the iron in the clay oxidizes, which enhances the clay’s natural red or orange color. The exact temperature and duration of the firing depend on the type of clay and the desired properties of the final product.

Glazing (Optional)

While terracotta is typically left unglazed to showcase its natural texture and color, some pieces may be glazed for functional or decorative purposes. Glazing involves applying a liquid glass solution to the surface of the dried clay, which then vitrifies during firing, creating a shiny, often colorful, waterproof coating.

Cooling and Finishing

After firing, the terracotta pieces must cool gradually in the kiln. Rapid cooling can lead to thermal shock and cracking. Once cooled, the final pieces are inspected for quality and are sometimes finished with paints or sealants to enhance durability and aesthetic appeal.

What is Terracotta Historical Used For?

The use of terracotta dates back to prehistoric times when it was primarily used for pottery. The oldest terracotta artifacts, including figurines and cookware, date back to around 24,000 BC, found in the Czech Republic. These early items highlight terracotta's role in daily domestic life across ancient societies.

Terracotta in Ancient Civilizations

The Middle East and Asia

In Mesopotamia, terracotta was extensively used to craft cuneiform tablets for record-keeping and religious texts.

The Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang in China, dating back to the 3rd century BC, remains one of the most famous historical uses of terracotta. These life-sized figures were crafted to accompany the emperor in the afterlife, demonstrating the material's significance in burial practices and monumental art.

The Mediterranean

In ancient Greece, terracotta was employed to create both functional items like water and wine vessels and sacred objects like votive statues and temple friezes.

The Romans utilized terracotta for architectural purposes, notably in the form of roofing tiles and pipes for their sophisticated aqueduct systems.

Terracotta in Art and Architecture

During the Renaissance and into the Baroque period, terracotta became a popular medium for sculptural art due to its pliability and suitability for intricate details. It was often used for creating preliminary models that would later be cast in more permanent materials like bronze.

In the 19th century, terracotta saw a revival in architectural use during the Industrial Revolution. Its fire-resistant properties made it an ideal material for building facades, especially in urban settings where fire safety became a paramount concern.

Cultural Significance

Terracotta has held various cultural significances beyond its practical applications. In many cultures, it was associated with the very essence of life, given its earthy origin and life-sustaining uses. This connection is evident in the spiritual and ritualistic uses of terracotta, from prehistoric fertility figurines to its role in religious ceremonies.

What is Terracotta Modern Used For?

Terracotta, with its rich heritage and natural charm, continues to be a favored material in various fields. While traditionally associated with pottery and architectural ornaments, modern uses of terracotta span innovative and sustainable applications.

Architectural Applications

One of the most visible uses of terracotta in the modern world is in architecture. Terracotta has made a significant comeback in building facades, particularly through terracotta cladding systems. These systems not only offer aesthetic warmth and texture but also provide functional benefits like enhanced insulation and durability. The material's natural ability to regulate indoor temperature and humidity makes it an eco-friendly choice for green building projects.

Garden and Landscape Design

In garden settings, terracotta is widely used for plant pots and decorative features. Its porous nature allows air and moisture to pass through, which benefits plant health, making it an ideal choice for both indoor and outdoor gardening. Additionally, terracotta's rustic appearance harmonizes naturally with garden landscapes, adding a touch of elegance and simplicity.

Art and Sculpture

Artists continue to explore the expressive potential of terracotta due to its malleable texture and earthy tones. Modern sculptors often choose terracotta for its traditional connotations and ability to convey intricate details, making it perfect for both large-scale sculptures and smaller studio pieces. The revival of artisanal crafts has also seen terracotta regain popularity in bespoke pottery and ceramic art.

Interior Design

Terracotta tiles are experiencing a resurgence in interior design, valued for their natural aesthetic and warmth. They are used extensively in flooring, wall cladding, and as accent pieces in kitchens and bathrooms. The unique color variations and textures of terracotta tiles make each installation unique, appealing to designers looking for authenticity and a tactile connection to natural materials.

Technological and Industrial Uses

Innovative uses of terracotta also extend to technology and industry. Recent developments include terracotta solar panels and façade systems that incorporate photovoltaic cells to generate electricity while providing traditional architectural aesthetics. Additionally, terracotta is being explored as a sustainable option in water filtration systems due to its porous properties.

Culinary Uses

Terracotta remains a staple in culinary traditions around the world, particularly in the preparation and serving of ethnic cuisines. It is prized for its ability to impart a unique earthy flavor to dishes such as biryanis, casseroles, and baked goods. Terracotta cookware is also valued for its slow cooking properties, which help in enhancing food flavors and retaining nutrients.


Terracotta remains a timeless and versatile material, cherished not only for its historical significance but also for its aesthetic and functional qualities. Whether used in art, architecture, or everyday objects, terracotta continues to be a symbol of human ingenuity and a bridge between the past and the present. As we continue to explore and innovate, the earthy charm of terracotta ensures it remains a favorite in both traditional and modern applications.