Chambri pottery is essential for food preparation and storage in the thatched stilt houses along the Sepik River. Although some cooking is done outside, each house has an area where clay is brought in to provide a stable, fire-proof base for a gugumbe or fire dish which is about 2-5 ft. (60-150 cm) in diameter.
These fireplaces are wide, scooped-out pots placed on the prepared earthen base in a slightly up-tilted position and wedged with stones for stability. Small cook fires are safely built in this open pot. Most cooking is done quickly: sago flour pancakes with dried fish, or a pot of rice, and maybe coffee or tea in the morning. Sometimes a slow, smoldering fire is built to smoke fish or other meat suspended above the fire.
Only the Iatmul speaking village of Aibom has suitable clay to make this style of pottery. The village sits inland off the middle Sepik River in the Chambri Lakes. Women collect clay from pits at the foot of Aibom Mountain behind the village.
In addition to fireplaces, Aibom women make sago storage jars and other smaller pieces. Most women make pots of all types during the wet season. If they marry outside the village they lose their access to the clay pits, but they can still make pots.
A potter starts with a double thickness pinch pot and adds coils to build up the form. The coils are smoothed to complete the pot. The pots are dried to the leather-hard stage under the stilt houses, a slow process in the tropics.
Decoration is added, sometimes with filets or with finely detailed clay slip designs using natural earth colors of red, black and white. The men traditionally shape the faces and figures on the ridge tiles, sago and ceremonial pots. Men also do the painting. Recently some women are doing this, especially on the smaller pots made for outside sales.
Firing is done before a big market day. The pots are set out in the sun to finish drying, then fired by heaping dried sago palm fronds over the mounded pottery. The firing takes from 30-60 minutes. The pots are properly fired when they turn orange. This produces a very low fire pottery.
There are many different types of pottery. The sero is a common cooking pot with simple filet decorations.
There are two types of jars for storing the moist sago palm flour which is the staple of the Sepik diet.
The noranggau is smaller with shorter neck and two to four faces extending onto body of the pot. The faces represent animals or humans. The noranggau is used for storing fresh sago before it is smoked or cooked.
Margaret Tuckson and Patricia May collected a number of different stories about the female deity that brought pottery to the tribe during their work on their classic book. See the Chambri references on pp. 231-141 of their excellent and comprehensive book on traditional pottery in Papua New Guinea, The Traditional Pottery of Papua New Guinea.
The men in Japandai Village carve a statue representing an Aibom woman carrying a Chambri fireplace on her head. During a long conflict with a neighboring village, these statues were set up in Japandai Village and in their gardens with offerings placed in the "fireplace" to fight the competing sorcerers' black magic.
Chambri pottery is traditionally traded, along with dried fish from the Lakes, for Sepik River sago flour and betel nut, as well as April River grass skirts. The Maringei people, who live close to the small channel into the Lakes, are the middlemen. Traders from Tambanum Village, who also trade other pots from other areas, take the pottery as far north as the April River and south to the Murik Lakes near where the Sepik empties out into the sea. Everyone needs a Chambri fireplace and sago storage jars in their house, so there is a ready market.
Figure 10: Barbara Smak and helper preparing dinner for backpackers in Angoram using a clay Chambri pottery fireplace. A recipe for our Sepik River Patrol Curry is at https://www.rimjournal.com/recipes/mains/sepik.htm
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