A Guide to Native American Pottery

An example of a storage jar from early Acoma Indian Pueblo pottery in New Mexico
A storage jar from early Acoma Indian Pueblo pottery in New Mexico. Buddy Mays / Getty Images

The earliest, documented Native American pottery that’s been discovered dates back to around 4,500 years ago. This could be considered relatively modern in the pottery world, given that the oldest pieces of pottery ever found date back around 20,000 years ago (they were crockery wares, unearthed in the Xianrendong Cave in China’s Jiangxi Province).

Origins

As with most early pottery, Native American pottery was born out of necessity and its uses included cooking (plus storing grains) and holding water. It’s thought that Native Americans began with covering cooking baskets (made of woven casings) with mud. Wood coals were then heated and placed within the basket to cook the food. They soon found out that the heat actually hardened the mud clay and made it durable enough to be used alone for cooking, without the need for the woven cased basket. Archeologists realized this methodology after many of the ancient clay pots that were found had indentions and textures, which had come from a basket.

How Was the Pottery Made?

The clay Native Americans used was usually collected from hillsides or from nearby streams. The process is thought to have been a difficult one, as the clay had to be first mined and then purified. It’s been documented that Native Americans put on ritual ceremonies when they were extracting the clay. As with all ancient methods of pottery, the mud clay had to be mixed with another substance to make sure there was less shrinkage (this is what causes cracks in pottery). Native American potters tended to mix the clay with materials such as sand, plant fibers and in some cases, ground mussel shells.

Most Native American pottery was made by hand (there’s been little documentation of a wheel being used), using very traditional techniques. Coiling was the most popular method, and long coils were rolled out (into thin sausage shapes) and then built round and round on top of each other to make the walls of the shaped pot. Once all the coils were in place, the pot would have been smoothed carefully by hand. Wedging (to remove all of the air bubbles from the clay) was done by beating the piece of clay against a rock or stone. Pinch pots were also common and done by hand, although coiling tends to be an easier and more stable method for creating larger pots and vessels, particularly for deep bowls that were used to cook over an open fire. When finished, pots were left out in the sun to dry and then heated in a fire to make sure all the water was removed and the clay had turned to pottery.

Uses Across Different Tribes and Regions

Interestingly, not all Native American tribes used pottery as a large part of their daily life, this was because some tribes were nomadic and pottery, being fragile, did not transport well on their frequent journeys. Similarly, the most pottery was found in tribes that relied on farming over hunting, as they had more to store. Within some tribes, they created pots with indented bases, so that they could be used to hold water and be carried on someone’s head.

Native American pottery development is said to have spread from Mesoamerica up to Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi. While the techniques across the regions were fairly similar, it was in decoration and design that the Native American tribes' pottery differed. Southwestern tribes often used patterns like snakes or feathers or everyday scenes from life in their glazing, while Anasazi pottery is famed for its use of beautiful geometric shapes.

Potters from the Zuni tribes (who were based near the border of New Mexico) and the Hopi tribes (in north-western Arizona) were inspired by wildlife to decorate their pots, and drawings of things like flowers and even dragonflies were found etched onto the pots.

Over the years, color was really introduced to Native American pottery, with more recent pottery being extremely colorful. Some tribes used designs to mark the bottom of their pottery, like a modern-day stamp. The Navajo potters were way ahead of the curve, using horse hair pottery. This decorative technique involves horse hair being put on the pot during the high firing process to create striking and creative markings.