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Terracotta translates from Latin as ‘burnt earth’ and is a type of clay-based ceramic or earthenware material that has been used for sculpture, pottery and architectural purposes by many civilisations, from the ancient Greeks, to the Egyptians, the Chinese and Native Americans. The Chinese and Indian cultures used terracotta as a form of elaborate roof decoration for temples and other prestigious buildings.
It is formed by a mixture of clay and water that is fired and then either be left unglazed, or painted, slip glazed or glazed. If terracotta is to be painted, gesso (a type of primer) is applied first.
Terracotta is formed by moulding an appropriate refined clay to the required shape by pouring or pressing it into a plaster or sandstone mould and leaving to dry. It is then placed in a kiln and fired, typically at around 1,000 °C. The characteristic red-brown colour of terracotta is the result of the iron content in the clay reacting with oxygen during the firing. The terracotta is then slowly cooled and finished.
The performance of terracotta is influenced by its porosity. It has poor resistance to tension and low shear strength but is strong in compression. Terracotta can fail due to; poor manufacturing or installation, weathering, atmospheric pollution that causes salt formation, freeze-thaw cycling, and so on. Poor installation can be due to improper loading, or the mortar used being too strong, which transfers stress to the terracotta block.