How Pueblo Pottery is Made

How Pueblo Pottery is Made

I have always loved Pueblo pottery, the complex designs and vibrant colors speak to my soul. Pueblo Indian culture and art is fascinating and complex and inspires me to want to learn more, to always want to dig just a little deeper. Through my study of Southwestern pottery I have come to know many Pueblo potters and have come to a good understanding of the process. Let me walk you through this fascinating process by showing you how Pueblo pottery is made.

Pueblo pottery is hand made by Native American Pueblo people using the traditional techniques that have been handed down in that culture for centuries. The pottery is most often hand formed by the coil method from locally dug clay, painted with local clay and mineral paint and fired without a kiln using cow or sheep manure.

The Pueblos are a group of Native Americans who live in the northern part of the American Southwest who share similar cultures but differ in languages. They traditionally built large blocks of homes from stone or mud that are called a “Pueblo” and they produce most of their food through agriculture.

The Ancient Tradition

Around 200 AD basic brown and grey plain pottery was made in villages all over what is today the American Southwest. Archaeologist believe that the technology of pottery making was brought north out of Mexico.

It wasn’t until about 300 years later that people started decorating their pottery. Slowly the quality, complexity and number of colors on their pottery increased. By 1400 AD Pueblo pottery had reached a level where it looked very similar to how it looks today.

The Pueblo people have a long pottery traditions that stretch back in their families and cultures for centuries. These traditions can be a strong influence on a potter influencing the quality of her work in different ways. There may be social pressure too within a Pueblo to stay with certain parameters, not to go too far in experimenting or with more contemporary pottery styles.

Classic Pueblo pottery in 1900
Classic Pueblo pottery in 1900

Clay

Most Pueblo potters dig their own clay from natural deposits that exist near their villages. Sometimes walking or driving (or some combination of both) long distances to get to the best clays. These are often the same clay deposits that the potters of their village have used for generations.

When they get home with the raw clay it is ground to a powder between two stones called a mano and metate. Nowadays it is often ground with machinery but the old ways still hang on with some potters. Next the clay is mixed with a small amount of volcanic ash or a powder made from grinding up broken pieces of pottery, this will prevent the pottery from cracking when it dries and in the fire. Finally the prepared clay is moistened and kneaded to make a consistent, plastic mass ready for forming pottery.

Forming

The Pueblo potter uses a tool called a puki, a shallow earthenware dish, taking a ball of clay the potter pats out a flat slab of clay between her hands and then presses this into the bottom of the puki. A thin rope of clay or coil is then laid on top of this base and attached by a pinching technique. The pot slowly rises with successive layers of clay coils and pinching.

Any lumps are scraped away with a tool called a gourd scrapers which is similar to the tool that modern potters use called a rib except it is made from the rind of a gourd. The gourd scraper can also be used on the inside of the pot to push the soft clay out into a pleasing and strong round shape.

The fully shaped pot is then allowed to dry slowly until it is completely dry. For a full explanation of the coil pottery process see my article How to Make a Coil Pot at this link.

Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo forming a pot
Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo forming a pot

Finishing Techniques

Most Pueblo pottery today is finished with sand paper although that is a modern development that was not available in days gone by. The bone dry pots are sanded all over to remove any imperfections and to refine the form. The sanding is finished off with a fine grade of sandpaper to leave a smooth, mat finish all over.

At this stage most pottery is painted all over in a thin layer of colored clay called a slip. Some Pueblos do not need to slip their pottery because the clay they use to form the pottery is of a good quality for polishing and fires to an appealing color. Much of the clay in the Southwest comes out of the fire brown so a slip can give the pottery a more appealing color.

After the pot is slipped it is rubbed with a smooth river stone to polish the surface of the pot. The surface of the clay needs to be damp to be polished so the pot needs to be polished right after the slip has been applied or rewetted in a small area just before polishing. The polishing technique is done pretty much the same for pottery that is not slipped, a small section is dampened and polished, then another small section and so forth until the whole pot is well polished.

Traditional Pueblo paintbrushes are made from the long fibrous leaf of the yucca plant and many potters still use these but it is common to use store bought paintbrushes today too.

The paint used to decorate Pueblo pottery is most often one of three types.

  • Brightly colored clay painted directly in the pot.
  • Organic paint created by boiling down the Rocky Mountain Bee Plant into a thick syrup.
  • A finely ground mineral mixed with a small amount of organic paint and/or a small amount off clay to help the paint to stick to the pot.

The designs are skillfully and carefully painted on the pot using the paints described above. After the painting is complete the pottery is ready to be fired.

A traditional outdoor pottery firing
A traditional outdoor pottery firing

Firing

It is not uncommon for pottery to be kiln fired in the Pueblos today but a large percent off it is still fired in a traditional outdoor firing. The firing process most often goes like this;

  • Pottery is stacked in a metal container, milk crate or other non-flammable container raised off the ground by tin cans or something similar.
  • Fuel is stacked all around the pottery container. Some wood may be used especially for kindling but most fuel used is manure, either whole cow pies or sheep manure from the bottom of the pen that has been trampled into a thick layer and cut into blocks.
  • Fuel is lit on fire and allowed to burn down.
  • If black pottery is being produced the entire stack of fuel and pottery is smothered in powdered horse manure before maximum temperature is reached.

Unlike modern pottery that is fired twice (or more times) Pueblo tradition dictates that the pottery is fired only once. It is made, decorated and finally fired, the temperatures reached are between 700 and 800 degrees Celsius so are not hot enough to vitrify the clay (melting the particles together). The resulting pottery is earthenware and therefore porous, allowing liquids in the pot to slowly soak through the pottery.

For a detailed explanation of the firing process used by many of these potters check out my article How to Fire Pottery Without a Kiln at this link.

Examples of Acoma Pueblo pottery
Examples of Acoma Pueblo pottery

Buying Pueblo Pottery

If you are planning on buying Pueblo pottery, it will help you to make an informed decision to know how it is made. Also the knowledge will help you better appreciate the work and artistry that went into your purchase.

It is fun to visit the Pueblos and meet individual potters and ask them questions about their work but that is not always possible. Whether you are buying from the potter or a dealer you should ask questions about any pottery you are interested in and get good answers before buying. Some things to watch out for are…

  • Slip-cast ware. Some Pueblos will sell pottery that is not produced by the traditional coil method but instead is produced by a modern shortcut called slip casting. If you are buying slip cast pottery the price should reflect the shortcut.
  • Kiln fired. It seems that some Pueblos have gone all in with using modern electric kilns to fire pottery while others rigidly stick to the traditional open firing method. For example, looking at pottery in the Pueblos of Zuni or Acoma you would be hard pressed to find any that was not kiln fired. Just the opposite is true at Hopi where nearly every single piece of pottery is fired outdoors with sheep manure.
  • Contemporary Pueblo pottery. There is nothing wrong with contemporary pottery per-se but be aware that not all pottery offered for sale by Pueblo Indians today is made in the old ways. In addition to the shortcuts mentioned above you may find store bought “underglaze” paints, acrylic paints that are applied after firing or any number of more modern technique. 

Learn More

If you are interested in learning how to make Pueblo Pottery you would enjoy one of my online video based workshops, they cover all aspects of the art and are affordably priced. You may also like this article on how Anasazi pottery was made which will give a more detailed look into ancestral Pueblo pottery.

I've been making primitive pottery since I was a teenager in the 80's. My work focuses on reproducing the beautiful and complex polychrome pottery styles made in the fourteenth century. I have taught workshops and lectured at venues all over the Southwest. While traditional potters are notoriously closed about sharing information, I believe that "when information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving." Because of my feelings about sharing information I created AncientPottery.how to help others who want to learn.

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