Native American tribes living in the Southwest—in what became Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado—didn’t make pottery until around A.D. 100, although they were likely aware of the techniques used in Mexico and South America. As they were nomadic hunters and gatherers, it didn’t make sense for them to lug around heavy pots—baskets and weavings were much more practical as lightweight containers.

It was only after the Southwestern indigenous peoples developed techniques for irrigation and began farming their dry homeland that they needed pots for storing grain—these were probably mud-lined baskets. Pottery made for use in sacred ceremonies came next, followed by pieces made for trade with other tribes such as the Navajo.

The interactions between tribes influenced the imagery, shapes, and techniques used in pottery. Between 1100 and 1330, prehistoric pottery-making reached its height of artistry. This pottery, made by the ancient ancestors of modern-day tribes, can be identified by color of the clay: Brown clay is attributed to Mogollon, white or gray to Anasazi (early Pueblo who lived in the Four Corners region), buff to Hohokam and Casa Grandes, red to Salado, and yellow to Sinagua and early Hopi.

Some of the earliest pieces were made by rolling the clay into long snakelike shapes, and then coiling it up from the base until the potter had a finished piece. The Hohokam and Mogollon also used a method that employed a paddle and an anvil to shape the clay into a jar.

Around 1300, the Pueblos were hit with a drought that killed their crops, prompting enemy nomadic tribes to exploit their weakened state and raid their settlements. They never quite recovered. By the time Southwestern Natives were enslaved by Spanish conquistadors around 1600, their pottery was considered pagan and primitive junk by their subjugators. The Native peoples, who were Christianized and schooled in the ways of the Old World, were forced to use tin, glass, or crockery made in Europe.

Once the transcontinental railroad opened the West to the rest of the United States in the late 1800s, Southwestern Native American pottery experienced a revival. Victorian Era tourists found American Indian wares to be exotic and adorable, and wanted to take an authentic piece of pottery home as a conversation piece for their cluttered parlors.

At the same time, the Smithsonian and other institutions went on expeditions to document the ways of American Indians, whom they believed would soon disappear. These scientists g...

That’s when the Southwestern Native Americans began making pottery almost exclusively to sell to tourists and non-Indians. At first, the Indians made the same sort of pots they would for themselves—large vessels for grains, created laboriously with attention to detail and lavish decoration. However, Anglo merchants pressured the Native artisans to make smaller objects that could fit neatly into Victorian suitcases. Potters soon realized it was more efficient to make less elaborate work with less concern for perfection.

While purists might dismiss the newer generations of Pueblo pottery, it sparked a revival in a dying art. In fact, many 20th-century potters have devoted themselves to re-creating and expanding upon the techniques and simple styles perfected by their ancestors. As a result, Pueblo pottery made today is of extraordinarily high quality because that's what the market demands. Prehistoric pottery is also available, but it is fraught with risk for collectors, as recent laws have prohibited digging on Native lands.

One of the most common shapes in Southwestern pottery is the olla, which is Spanish for “big jar.” Others shapes include the basket, which is a clay bowl with a handle over the top; the bean pot, a deep bowl from Picuris or Taos that's fired at a high temperature so it's safe for cooking; the chili bowl, meant for individual servings; the dough bowl, which is often big enough to knead bread for 12 loaves; a kiva jar, a pot whose stepped shape recalls the steps to a “kiva” or underground ceremonial chamber; the melon jar, which resembles a casaba melon; a storage jar, a grain container that can be two-feet tall; and a seed jar, whose small opening is perfect for shaking out seeds.

Pottery was also made into figural shapes. Effigies are vessels shaped like animals, plants, or humans, while figurines are solid. The term “mono,” Spanish for monkey, was used in the 19th century to dismiss figurines made by the Cochiti and Tesuque. One particularly popular figurine with the Victorians was the Tesuque Rain God, which was mass-produced for tourists between the 1890s and 1930s.

In 1964, Helen Cordero, a prominent potter in the Cochiti Pueblo, produced a figurine with little children sitting all over him, as if they were listening to a tale. These “Storyteller” figurines have been widely popular ever since. If the main figurine is a woman, the figure is called “Singing Mother.” Tourists are also fond of the double-mouthed wedding vase, supposedly designed so the bride and groom can share a drink, as well as curios shaped like miniature “hornos” or pueblo bread ovens—these were particularly popular in the '60s.

Collectors should always be wary of so-called “ceremonial” jars, bowls, or vessels. While dealers might label a piece “ceremonial” to give it air of mystery, the truth is authentic ceremonial pieces are not meant to be sold and rarely make it onto the market. For example, a “fetish bowl,” which is a Zuni pot covered in crushed turquoise with a sidewall hole for inserting carved fetishes, is considered too sacred to be sold. So-called fetish bowls on the market today were probably made by Navajos, who find no spiritual significance in such objects.

It’s also good to keep in mind that objects like plates, trivets, and tulip vases didn’t exist until Anglo Americans introduced these concepts. A lot of the Native American pottery now sold at souvenir shops is made using a pre-cast mold, which is then beautifully painted in traditional styles. This sort of pottery is known as greenware, and can be identified by bumps or divots on opposite sides of the pot.

While the turn-of-the-century obsession with all things American Indian can be blamed for the proliferation of tacky souvenirs, it also turned many gifted Native American potters into celebrities. Nampeyo, for example, became one of the most celebrated Hopi potters in history—her vast family is still making work in her style today.

María Martinez, a.k.a. Poveka, a celebrated potter of San Ildefonso pueblo, was the first to sign her pottery in the 1920s. Before then, many Indian tribes, like the Acoma, considered it a distasteful show of ego to sign one’s work. Other esteemed potters of the 20th century include María’s husband, Julian, and son Popovi Da; Margaret Tafoya, Nathan Youngblood, and Joseph Lonewolf of Santa Clara pueblo; the Victorinos of Acoma pueblo; and Hopi potter Antoinette Silas Honie.

San Ildefonso pottery is traditionally black-on-red ware or polychrome on white or grayish clay, featuring geometric designs. Martinez developed a technique to produce black-on-black pottery and also popularized feather and water serpent motifs with her work. Santa Clara pottery tends to be made of undecorated black clay, with fluted rims and a bear-paw design pressed into the pot.

Traditional San Juan potters also preferred plain vessels, but theirs were red. Potters at Taos, Picuris, and Nambe, however, used a brown clay with sparkling fleck of mica, making painted decorations unnecessary. Santo Domingo pottery, with its cream-colored slip and red base, features rich black paint with geometric, animals, or floral motifs, whereas similar Cochiti pottery has clouds, rain, and lightening, as well as human and animal forms that other tribes considered taboo for non-ceremonial pots.

Acoma pottery tends to slipped in white and painted in black, or black plus hues of red. The popular Acoma designs include complicated geometric patterns as well as flowers and birds. Acoma potters Marie Z. Chino and Lucy M. Lewis introduced a revival of prestoric designs including Hohokam flute-playing fertility god Kokopelli, “picture” designs from the Mimbres-region of Mogollan, and the Zuni “deer in his house" motif.

Though influenced by the Zuni, Hopi pottery came into its own in the 1920s, when Nampeyo reintroduced a style used in the ancient Hopi village of Sikyatki. This pottery ranges from orange to cream, depending on how it was fired, after which it's painted with mineral black, reddish orange, and white in asymmetrical designs of birds, feathers, and sometimes katsinas. The Hopi are noted for their small-mouthed squat jars with flattened shoulders.

Other tribes like the Tesuque and Jemez abandoned their traditional pottery styles in favor of brightly colored tourist trinkets using poster paints and acrylics. A good way to identify these pieces is to consider whether the paint color could have actually come from the ground.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Gouda Design

Gouda Design

Stuart Lonsdale and Kim Lindley's excellent tribute to and reference on Gouda Dutch Art Pottery and Delftware. The … [read review or visit site]

First American Art

First American Art

The companion website to First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art, which… [read review or visit site]

Cowan Pottery Museum Associates

Cowan Pottery Museum Associates

Dedicated to raising awareness of the ceramic art work of R. Guy Cowan and his Cowan Pottery Studio in northeastern… [read review or visit site]

The Pottery Studio

The Pottery Studio

This 7,000-plus page site lives up to its self-billing as a 'knowledge base' with examples of work from all major a… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare Zuni Pueblo Deer Pottery Pot Circa 1900 - One Of Many Artifacts ListedRare Large 19th Century Zuni Pueblo Pot - Ex Joseph Henry Sharp/christian Rub Antique Pima Apache Native American Indian Weaved Basket Low Bowl 11 3/4"Excellent Old Native Zia Pueblo Indian Pottery OllaTwo Antique Hopi Indian Pottery JarsVintage Chimayo Indian Style Blanket Purse With Pottery Clasp La Azteca Wool BoxLot 2 - Big Vintage Ada Suina Cochiti Pueblo Pottery Storyteller W 5 ChildrenHopi Indian Pot By Dextra Quotskuyva (nampeyo)Large Pre-columbian Anasazi Pueblo Corrugated Handled Pottery Pitcher 1100 Ad.Miniature Acoma Decorated Pottery Canteen, C. 1900-20sVery Fine Old Hopi Pottery Mudhead Rattle--nr!Signed Marie Circa 1924 Maria Martinez San Ildefonso Indian Pottery BowlAnasazi / Casas Grande Animal Olla Very OldPo-2: 19th Century Native American Indian Teseque Pueblo Rain God Pottery FigureRare California Coiled Oval Basket Bowl, C. 1890-1920sNative American Artifact- 8 5/8"x4" Mississippian Period Dog Effigy Bowl  Awesome Antique Decorated Indian Bowl From Nw New Mexico !!!Old Artifact Peace Pipe Bird Pottery Ex Museum PieceIndian Artifact- 3" Owl Effigy Pipe Arkansas Shell Tempered Pottery Coa  Gorgeous Traditional Hopi Indian "eagletail" Design Pottery By Adelle Nampeyo Vintage Fannie Nampeyo Hand Made American Indian Bowl Pot Vase Very Fine Old Karok Basket Bowl--nr!Rare Ancient Anasazi Bowl - Ex Joseph Henry Sharp/christian Rub - No Reserve!Authentic Mississippian Pottery Bottle From The G.l. Johnson CollectionOld Santa Clara Pueblo Indian Pottery - Pair Of CandlesticksAmerican Indian Zuni Pottery Bowl Stunning Traditional Hopi Indian Pottery Jar By Lilian Namingha Pair Of Horsehair Navajo Signed Sand Pottery Vases Jars Desert Scene #234 Anasazi Reserve Bowl 1050 Ad.Old Native American Anazasi Pottery JugGorgeous Hopi Indian "birds-n-feathers" Pottery By Award Winning Alice Dashee Very Fine Early Santo Domingo Pottery Bowl--nr!Antique C 1930 Native American Hopi Polychrome Bowl & Vtg Nemadji Art Pottery NrVery Fine Hopi Pottery Bowl--signed--nr!1970s Ernie & Marian Santa Clara Pottery Rose Naranjo Black Bear Paw Pueblo 10+"Pueblo Pottery Anasazi Pottery Dated 57 Beautiful Native American Pottery**rare Piece**beautiful Hopi Indian Pottery By Artist Caroline Lomaquahu Lot 52: Pa. Human Effigy Pottery From Pipe Indian Artifact San Ildefonso Black-ware Pottery Maria Martinez 1923-1925Native American Indian San Ildefonso Pueblo Pottery Vase Signed Blue Corn Vintage Hopi Pot Bowl Olla Good ConditionFramed Arrowhead Art Old Anasazi Pottery Native American Stone Beads ArrowheadsLarge 16" Native American Indian Style Basket Bowl 16" With Figures Pima3pc Old Pawn 1940s Zuni Tiny Hand Carved Turquoise Pot Vase Platter Dish Bowl NrVintage Native American Indian Pottery Vase Signed Black On Black Pueblo?Pueblo Pottery Bowl Anasazi Native American PotteryAnasazi Black On White Bowl Cir 1115 To 1200 Ad. Very LargeAncient Pre Columbian Case Grande Az Area Hohokam Black Ware Pot Vintage Hopi Pottery Bowl With Bird HallmarkVtg North Carolina Native American Indian Cherokee Tribe Pottery Jug Vase YqzAnasazi Ancient Arrowhead Lot Native American Trade Beads Old Pottery Shard AwlExtra Large Acoma Nm Olla/no ReserveRare Santa Clara Pottery Corn Moquino Feather Pattern PotMayan Pottery Rattle - Lizard EffigyPine Ridge Pottery South Dakota Sioux Indian Bowl, SgraffitoVery Fine Santa Clara Pottery Bowl--signed--nr!Santa Clara Pueblo Indian Pottery Clown Storyteller - MargaretOld Vintage Jemez Pueblo Polychrome Pot Pottery Native American Folk ArtZuni Native American Indian Southwestern Hand Made Pot ~ SignedNative American Pottery Santa Clara Signed Pueblo Paul Speckled Rock W Turquoise

Recent News: Native American Pottery

Source: Google News

Arts & entertainment events, Oct. 24-30, October 22nd

Archaeology of the Civil War: Events include presentations by archaeologists, family-friendly kids activities such as Native American pottery making, flint knapping and hands-on activities for all ages. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., free. San Marcos de Apalache...Read more

County archaeologist not afraid to get her hands dirty
Lincoln Times-News, October 22nd

As the Lincoln County archaeologist, January Costa spends the majority of her time either digging in the dirt or studying whatever artifact she's pulled out of the dirt. The Gastonia native fell in love with archaeology at a young age and began...Read more

Curbed Features
Curbed Chicago, October 22nd

When Judd arrived in Marfa he had a cattle feed mill in his back yard (he constructed an adobe wall around his compound in part to block the view). While Judd surely admired and collected Navajo blankets and Native American pottery for their...Read more

Grand Village to host student days
Natchez Democrat, October 19th

Pat Martin shall demonstrate Native American Pottery techniques. Clark Burkett will demonstrate French Colonial life style. Jim Barnett will discuss extinct mammals that once lived here. This year we have two different storytellers, Susan Bonnette and ...Read more

Archaeological Dig at Swift-Coles Historic Home — Oct. 17, 2014
Gulf Coast News Today, October 17th

Archaeologists from the University of South Alabama joined local volunteers in an archaeological dig Friday on the property surrounding the Swift-Coles Historic Home in Bon Secour. Friday's dig was part of a three-day dig aimed at raising public...Read more

McClellanville glass artist launches community project based on origami art
Charleston City Paper, October 15th

Local Native American pottery fragments, buttons, pieces of golf balls, and other flotsam have found its way into the jars and bowls that crowd her charmingly chaotic home studio. A Christmas ornament, a fragment of a once-cherished vase, and a toilet...Read more

Archaeological dig unearths some of St. Augustine's oldest artifacts
First Coast News, October 12th

Also, Native American pottery pieces found next to European pottery show "the interaction between Native American and Europeans in the 16th Century." What's more, the discovery of a buried post hole – maybe for a fence – suggests St. Augustine's...Read more

Catawba Pottery a Highlight of Southeastern Native Artists' Exhibition
Free Times, September 23rd

When Hernando De Soto explored what is now the American Southeast in 1540, the Catawba — also known as the Iswa, or “people of the river” — controlled much of the land that is now South Carolina. Over the next three hundred years, however, their ...Read more