Los pueblos del alto (highland villages) is the name given on La Gomera to settlements located in the higher parts of the Island, which have always been closely tied to the natural resources around them. However, despite their isolation, members of these communities managed to maintain a steady flow of socioeconomic and cultural accessories between themselves and other villages found on the island. These networks of exchange have provided one of the main bases for the pattern of settlement on the island throughout its history.
Traditional Gomeran culture generated domestic activity aimed at producing utensils to satisfy the needs of everyday life. Most of these articles were made by hand, exploiting raw materials available in the vicinity, such as hides from their livestock, wood from the hillsides, clay deposits from the plains, or linen from the fields. Furniture, clothing, lamps, sachos (mattocks), mortars, raposas (baskets), zurronas (goat skin bags), empleitas (palm-leaf bands used in cheese-making) or foles (wineskins) and many other objects. Outstanding among all these handicrafts is the curious history of local pottery, which runs up to the present day.
The prehistoric pottery of La Gomera was, to a certain extent, roughly made and limited in its variety of shapes. This plainness was partly due to the use the pots were put to, characteristic of pastoral communities. Present-day Gomeran pottery conserves only a few features of prehispanic origin; the most characteristic is the fact that it is made by hand, by women who, continuing their most ancestral tradition, have handed down from one generation to the next, the secrets of clay working without the use of the potter’s wheel. With time, changes were introduced into the ancient Gomeran crockery, brought about by the need to adapt their earthenware to a completely different economic model: agriculture and stabled livestock. At the same time, pottery making eventually ceased to be confined to the household and became a specialized activity. As a result, pottery manufacture was first recognised as a profession and later, pottery centres appeared where crockery with shapes similar to those produced on the other islands was made.
Although today the only surviving potter’s workshop is located in El Cercado, there is evidence that there used to be more on the island, such as the ones mentioned in the eighteenth century in Agulo, Alajeró and Vallehermoso. The potters covered great distances to sell the earthenware they carried with them, or else to exchange it for foodstuffs or other products.
Although at that time the profession was a marginal one, or even considered improper, these days Gomeran pottery acts as a symbol for the Island’s handicrafts, having won recognition and admiration outside the Archipelago due to its unquestionably ancestral character. The reddish tones found in bernegales (earthenware jars for water), tostadores and asaderas (griddles), lebrillos (basins) or pans are characteristic. But the crockery has not been immune to changes associated with the end of the so-called “traditional” culture in which it was created and where it was a vital element in islanders’ homes; today its functional value is only slight, but it has acquired great aesthetic value and symbolical significance for the identity of Gomeran people.