Early Southwest Pottery

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EARLY POTTERY OF THE SOUTHWEST
Article is by Victoria Chick, Figurative Artist and Early 19th & 20th Century Print Collector. 

 

Pottery sherds can be found strewn throughout the Southwest United States and Mexico. Sherds ( from the word “potsherds”) are fragments of fired clay from pottery used by indigenous tribes that lived in an area that now encompasses Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, Southern Colorado, Southern Utah, and Northern Mexico. The general term for the culture producing pottery is Mogollon. But Mogollon was composed of related tribal groups. The tribes can be identified by how they lived as well as the majority of distinctive design styles on pottery found at particular archaeological sites. Trading between groups resulted in some exchanges of pottery allowing archaeologists to trace trading partners through pottery designs.

Some cultures were semi-nomadic, while others would establish themselves for centuries in an area where conditions allowed farming that formed a necessary part of their food supply, enabling them to thrive.

In addition to sherds, archaeologists have found pottery in a few locations in near-perfect condition. Clay pots sometimes had a second use as funeral ware. In burial use, the bottom of the pot has a hole broken out and is placed upside down over the deceased person’s face. The probable concept behind the funeral wear was to protect the face while allowing the spirit to escape through the hole.

Women were the potters in the tribal economy, as far as is known. If they were fortunate, they could find clay without a lot of organic matter in it. A bit of sand, mica, or fine gravel mixed in with the clay could give the clay extra strength. Organic impurities needed to be removed by hand before the clay was mixed with water to a working consistency. Pounding and throwing the clay to force the air pockets out was a step to prevent the clay from exploding when fired.

Making pots by rolling the clay into rope-like shapes and, then, coiling the clay ropes and attaching them to each other by working the edges together by hand or putting a little slip between the ropes and blending the ropes together was a method used by all the tribal groups. Clay ropes forming the pots would be completely smoothed out before being decorated.

Contrasting color clays could be made into slip, clay and water mixed to a creamy consistency. Slip was used like paint to decorate the pots while they were still cool and damp. Brushes used to paint the slip were mostly made of yucca plants, with the fibers pounded out. Judging by the detail and fine decorated lines of early Southwest pottery, the yucca leaf brushes worked very well. Another slip technique was to paint the entire bowl with slip and lightly scrape part of it away to reveal the color of the clay underneath, so its color would be the design.

Geometric designs were the most common, with geometricized animals also prevalent. Designs reflected the plants, animals and insects of the locality or were figures of religious significance. Black on white, white on black, red on white or buff colored clays and slips were the colors that make early Southwest pottery distinctive.

After complete drying, the pots were placed in a pit, covered with a mound of branches and wood and set afire. The heat, reaching about 1400 degrees, was enough to fuse the clay into a semi-vitreous state, and to produce a pot that could be used for cooking or carrying water for a while, and for storage of dry materials for a long time.

During the period from about 800 A.D. through 1500 A.D., some tribal groups moved or even seemed to disappear. The probable cause was prolonged drought, making farming untenable in certain areas. It is thought some tribes assimilated with others in areas with more reliable water sources. Pottery designs found in pueblos of northern New Mexico and in Mexico suggest an amalgamation of religious practices indicating the joining of tribes.
The world’s largest collection of Mimbres pottery, considered by many scholars to be the finest early Southwest pottery, is housed at the Western New Mexico University Museum in Silver City, NM (pictured).

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at www.ArtistVictoriaChick.com


About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio.

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