The American Southwest has a rich coil pottery tradition that reaches back over 2000 years. Ceramic technology spread north into this area from Mexico before the time of Christ and over the centuries since has matured and diversified in expression.
Today nearly every Native American group in the Southwest possesses a unique style of pottery connected to that culture. Please follow along as I explore the fascinating history of coil pottery in the American Southwest.
- 1 Ceramic technology first arrives from Mexico
- 400 Utilitarian pottery is in common use
- 700 Decorated pottery begins being made
- 1200 Polychrome pottery comes into fashion
- 1300 Coal firing technology begins at Hopi villages
- 1300 Glaze paint technology begins in the White Mountains of Arizona
- 1400 Hohokam and Mogollon core areas abandoned, much ceramic knowledge lost
- 1540 First Spanish contact Old World diseases begin to decimate Native people, ceramic knowledge lost
- 1680 Pueblo Revolt throws out Spanish for 12 years, many villages move or consolidate, ceramic knowledge lost
- 1880 Railroads reach the Southwest lessening demand for utilitarian pottery and increasing demand for tourist pottery
Where Did Coil Pottery Originate?
Coil pottery originated in Central Mexico nearly 4000 years ago and slowly spread north, and I mean slooooooowly. It took nearly 2000 years for coil pottery technology to travel to the area around Tucson, Arizona where the earliest pottery in the United States has been found. That is a distance of about 1200 miles in 2000 years which means the technology traveled at the amazing speed of 0.00007 miles per hour. For comparison snails travel at around .006 miles per hour so sending pottery technology north by snail would have been something like 85 times faster.
The earliest coiled pottery in the Southwest dates to around 150 AD in southern Arizona, there are older ceramic figurines and other small items but this is the oldest known useable pottery. Pottery technology continued to spread from village to village and from culture to culture but these people were not like people today who are eager to have the latest and greatest technology. The early people of the Southwest seem to have been apprehensive to accept new technologies like pottery so this technology spread quite slowly. In the beginning everyone seemed to be making the same crude brown pottery all over the Southwest but as time went on different regional styles developed.
Because the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo people lived on the Colorado Plateau, an area geologically rich in fine marine clays, they developed a tradition for grey and white pottery. The Mogollon lived mostly in the mountains so their clays were full of minerals that produce warm colors upon firing so Mogollon pottery developed traditions for brown and red pottery. The Hohokam people who lived In the river valleys of southern Arizona had lighter colored clays that had caliche (calcium carbonate) inclusions so their traditions involved buff colored pottery. At this early time in the history of Southwest coil pottery, none of it was decorated, the pots were very utilitarian and plain, it would be centuries more before pottery would become decorated.
Two Ways of Making Pottery
An interesting note about pottery history in the Southwest is that two different methods of forming pottery were practiced in different areas early on and it stayed that way all the way through prehistory and right down to today. The culture archaeologists call Hohokam who lived near present day Tucson and Phoenix used a pottery method called “paddle and anvil”. This method involves paddling the clay thinner using a stone or “anvil” on the inside of the pot and a wooden “paddle” on the outside. Paddle and anvil pottery can be very strong and thin walled.
The cultures known to archaeologists as Anasazi and Mogollon who lived to the north and east of the Hohokam respectively, used a method called “coil and scrape” to form pottery. This method uses a gourd scraper, essentially a potter’s rib tool made from a gourd, to scrape and thin the pottery. The areas where these two pottery making methods were practiced stayed more or less the same for centuries and even today are essentially unchanged.
Coil Pottery Gets Decorated
Around 700 AD the people of the Southwest began decorating their pottery with paint. First crude designs but these evolved into elaborate and complex designs rather quickly. Like the regional and cultural differences in pottery, the types of designs were dictated by cultural and geographic bounderies. That is to say that Hohokam people used a certain kind of paint and produced certain types of designs while Anasazi and Mogollon people each had their own ways of decorating pottery too.
The Anasazi culture of the four-corners area of the Southwest developed a unique type of paint made entirely from plants. This organic paint is essentially a thick syrup created by boiling down wild greens called Rocky Mountain Bee Plant. In the right kind of firing atmosphere (neutral) and applied to the right kind of clay (smectite) this organic paint will produce carbon black designs.
The Mimbres Mogollon who lived in southwest New Mexico created a facinating type of coil pottery which was decorated with scenes of people and animals. Mimbres pottery seems to depict scenes of everyday life at that time, and also fantastical scenes from mythology. This pottery was decorated with iron hematite based paint which turned black when fired in a reduction atmosphere (no oxygen available).
The Hohokam culture also used iron hematite paint but their oxidizing firing atmosphere (abundant oxygen available) caused it to produce red designs on their buff colored clay.
As time went on coil pottery became more and more elaborate in the Southwest. Brightly colored clay slips and stone polishing came into fashion around 1200 and polychrome pottery (pottery decorated with more than 2 colors) was in high demand around the region at that time.
Late Prehistory, Glaze and Coal
Ancient people were no different than people today, they were slaves to fashion, and colorful decorated pottery was definitely in style in 1300 AD in the American Southwest. Polychrome pottery and the minerals and clays needed to make it were traded across far distances by people who did not have wheels or beasts of burden, meaning that it all had to be carried on somebody’s back over hundreds of miles across deserts and mountains.
During this time new pottery making technologies were developed. One of those innovations was the use of lead based glaze decorations which is surprising because these people never developed the kiln. This glaze was apparently fired in a bon-fire which was able to reach super high temperatures required to melt lead based ores (over 1000 Celsius). Glaze paint techniques started in the mountains of central Arizona and spread east to the Pueblo villages near the Rio Grande in New Mexico where it was practiced into the 1600s.
Another technological innovation that occured to coil pottery around this time was the use of coal to fire pottery in the Hopi villages of northern Arizona. Coal fired pottery was able to reach much higher temperatures which produced harder, more durable ceramics. This hard, coal fired Hopi pottery was traded over a wide area, no doubt desired for its beautiful yellow color and its durability.
When the Spanish arrived in the Southwest in 1542 they caused a massive disruption of the Indian’s way of life across the region. As a result many types of pottery were abandoned and some technologies were lost within the first hundred years of Spanish rule. Coal firing and glaze paints were two such pottery technologies that were abandoned after the Spanish arrived. Other changes were new design motifs based on Spanish designs start to show up on pottery and new pottery forms like tea cups, saucers and candle holders began to be made.
Old World diseases also played a role in coil pottery history in this period. Whole villages were decimated by diseases for which the native people had no immunities. This forced peoples from different villages to consolidate into new or different villages, pottery technologies were lost or changed significantly because of all this loss and movement of people.
With the arrival of the railroad to the Southwest in the 1880s cheaply produced pots and pans began arriving from factories back east which significantly reduced the demand for traditionally made coil pottery. Some Native American communities found a new market though, selling tourist pottery to train passengers. And so although the train caused some communities to stop making pottery, the coil pottery traditions continued in new ways with tourist pottery.
The tourist pottery tradition has continued to this day and has expanded from low-cost tourist trinkets to very fine collectable art that sells for high dollar amounts in galleries in Santa Fe and Scottsdale.
Today the amount and types of coil pottery made in the American Southwest is greater than at any time in history. polychrome and bichrome, polished and carved and sgraffito, micaceous and black ware and the list goes on and on. A truly mind boggling cornucopia of pottery styles.
Some are sticking to their traditions and others are forging ahead boldly. For example some fire their pottery in traditional outdoor firings and many others use electric kilns. Some use traditional mineral paints and some paint pottery with acrylic paint. The sky is the limit in today’s world as Southwest coiled pottery has continued to blossom and expand in the past fifty years.
If you are interested in learning more about coil pottery I have a lot of helpful information available on this website including articles and online pottery classes. I also have a YouTube channel with a lot of information about how to make coil pottery that you can see at this link.