What Is Terra Cotta?

Terra cotta is clay molded and baked for a specific use.

Terra Cotta Tiles

Terra cotta, or baked earth, has many applications.Terra cotta, or baked earth, has many applications.
The term literally means "baked earth" in Italian. The name terra cotta also refers to its red-orange color. The origin of the clay dictates its color -- Mexican terra cotta has a pinkish hue and European terra cotta tends to brown-orange. Terra cotta was historically baked in the sun. Today terra cotta is fired in a kiln, which hardens it. Terra cotta was used in Mesopotamia as early as 2800 B. C. as wall bricks, flooring and as wall decoration. Flooring tiles, garden pots, architectural ornamentation and statuary are all modern-day uses for terra cotta.

Roof tiles, flooring, walls, and pathways in ancient Greece and Rome were made of terra cotta. Tiles were historically shaped by hand and left outside under the sun to dry and harden. Ovens were later introduced into the process, and were the precursors of today's kilns. Mexican floor tiles, known as Saltillo tiles after the town in which they were originally made, are terra cotta tiles made of Mexican clay, and have been kiln fired and glazed.


Ancient sculpture in terra cotta has been unearthed around the world. A recent discovery is the massive funerary pit of Terracotta Warriors, made over 2,200 years ago in China. Buried in mud and dirt, over 8,000 life-sized terra cotta statues and horses meant to accompany the deceased into the afterlife were uncovered, most in excellent condition. The crafting of art out of terra cotta stretches back into ancient history; the survival of so many pieces from so long ago attests to the durability of terra cotta sculptures.


Terra cotta vessels had numerous uses in antiquity, including as burial containers and as olive oil containers. Many of these "amphorae" dating to the Roman Empire have been found under the sea in the vicinity of wrecked ships, where the mud and cold preserved them. African archeological digs have unearthed terra cotta vessels in homes, where they stored food, herbs and medicine. Modern glazing techniques turn rough-hewn terra cotta into stoneware used in today's homes as flower pots, sculpture, and dinnerware.


The fields of clay around Birmingham, England, were the source of terra cotta used in many buildings constructed during the Victorian Era, specifically as ornamentation for facades. Terra cotta was valued as a building material during this era for its light weight, durability and dirt-resistant properties. It was also less expensive than stone. The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Albert Hall in London are both good examples of how elaborately terra cotta was used during this era.


Terra cotta ceramics, especially those produced in Italy and Portugal, are of high quality and value. Ceramics are fired in an oven for over a week, and products from flower pots, statuary, serving pieces, vases and dinnerware are embellished with paint before glazing is applied. When fired a second time, the finished product is safe for use with food and liquids.

About the Author

Jann Seal is published in magazines throughout the country and is noted for her design and decor articles and celebrity *in-home* interviews. An English degree from the University of Maryland and extensive travels and relocations to other countries have added to her decorating insight.