Pueblo Indian Pottery
Much of what we know about the ancient cultures of the Southwest
is through the study of their pottery. Archaeologists tell us that
the discovery of pottery was probably an accident, the result of
cooking in a clay-filled basket. When the basket burned away and
left the hardened residue of a clay container, it served as a catalyst
for a new way of life.
Ancient civilizations known for their achievements in ceramics include
the Hohokam, the Mimbres/Mogollon, and the Ancestral Pueblo People
(previously known as the Anasazi). Birds were popular decorative
motifs on the pottery of the Hohokam, who lived in what is today
Arizona from 300-1450 CE. The Mimbres people, who lived in what
is now southern New Mexico, were known for their striking figurative
designs in black and white. The Ancestral Pueblo people were known
for their impressive cliff dwellings, the ruins of which are found
in the four corners area (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico).
They often used a black slip made with natural minerals to decorate
white clay vessels. The Ancestral Pueblo People were also known
for a particular surface decoration called “corrugated”
ware (because it looks like corrugated cardboard).
Many of the Indian Pueblos in the Southwest today continue the pottery
traditions that were begun by their ancient ancestors. The Pueblos
located south of Santa Fe include Acoma, Santo Domingo, Cochiti,
Laguna, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Zia, Jemez, Isleta, and Sandia. The
Eight Northern Pueblos are San Juan, Santa Clara, Taos, Nambe, Tesuque,
Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, and Picuris. Zuni is located in northwestern
New Mexico and Hopi is in Arizona. Particularly rich pottery traditions
are found in Acoma, Cochiti, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Zuni, and
Hopi. The pottery from the different pueblos is distinguished primarily
by its decoration and style. For instance, Cochiti Pueblo is known
for charming storyteller dolls first created by Helen Cordero.
While the finished pieces may look very different, the techniques
used to create the pottery do not vary greatly between the pueblos.
First, the clay must be dug from the ground. This usually occurs
at a sacred site that is close to the potter’s home. The clay
is then ground and sifted for impurities. Temper, such as sand or
ground pot sherds, is added to prevent breakage. Water is added
to moisten the clay, after which the clay is allowed to “rest.”
The final step in the preparation process is “wedging,”
which removes any air pockets that might cause a piece to break
All pueblo pottery is constructed using the coiling technique. The
base is begun in a small dish called a “puki.” Coils
are then added to create the shape, and the surface is smoothed
with a gourd. When the potter is satisfied with the size and form
of the piece, it is left to dry.
After the pot has dried, the artist will smooth the surface with
sandpaper if needed. The pot is then wiped and cleaned thoroughly.
Next, a slip is added to the pot and it is burnished with a smooth
stone while still moist. This compacts the clay molecules and creates
a luster on the surface of the vessel. The surface is decorated
using a variety of colored slips.
Pueblo pots are always fired outdoors on the ground, often using
cow or horse dung as fuel. Successful firing is very dependent on
favorable weather conditions. Sometimes the kiln is smothered to
reduce the oxygen in the fire. This is known as a “reduction
firing,” and produces the black pottery that was made famous
by Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso. Potters in Santa Clara Pueblo
also create award-winning black pottery using reduction firing.
Pottery making has served as a visible link between the contemporary
Pueblo and their ancestors. Today, Pueblo artists continually produce
innovative new designs and pieces, while remaining true to their
rich ceramic traditions.
Plan: Making a Coil Pot
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte
by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)
Marilyn Stewart’s questions are so universal that they apply
to works of art across cultures. The questions presented in last
month’s newsletter apply perfectly to a discussion of Pueblo
pottery as well:
Is the pottery of the Southwestern Pueblo people valuable
or significant because of what it shows about the artist, the culture,
the materials used, or other art?
• Do you have a new understanding about the artist? Yourself?
• Does the work of art show you something important or new
about materials or processes?
• Have you learned something new about other art as a result
of viewing and understanding this particular work of art?
From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art
in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with
learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as
they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations
about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of
discussing important questions about art. They learn about their
own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through