Bryn Mawr College Art & Archaeology Collections

Distinguished Clay

March 26, 2001 through June 1, 2001
Rhys Carpenter Library for Art, Archaeology, and Cities
Kaiser Reading Room

(Left to right: Anasazi, Laguna, Acoma, Acoma, Picorus)

The painted pottery from the Four Corners area of the United States is quite distinctive and recognizable. This art form has evolved over centuries and the technique has been handed down through generations. The first pottery of the Southwest began as an imitation of basketry forms. The more recent pottery contains design variations that can assist in the identification of the cultural subgroups of the Pueblos. The outstanding quality of the Pueblo ceramic tradition has created a long term fascination with the artisans and their work. Collectors covet pieces for personal collections. Archaeologists utilize the pottery for a more scientific endeavor. The distinctions of design elements can assist archaeologists in naming and dating cultures found at any given site in America's Southwest.

The Anasazi (See Anasazi Pot) is a general term encompassing the sedentary people in the Four Corners region of the South West United States. This group developed out of the hunter gatherer Desert Tradition in the first millennia BC. Around 300 BC some areas began to make pottery. These first examples of potting fall under the grouping Basketmaker III. The crudely drawn black lines and dots represent basketry patterns. From the developmental periods of Basketmaker III to Pueblo III the makers preferred black lines on white or gray slip. Their designs were simple in the beginning but around 600 AD highly structured symmetrical geometric patterns became popular (See Sherds).

Various mineral composition of slips and paint led to the foundation of regional differentiation. Iron bearing mineral paints, which fired from a black to a reddish color, were present in the south and east, in the area of Cibola and Chaco Canyon. The white backgrounds were chalky and unpolished. In the north and west the Mesa Verde and Kayenta paints were carbon based which sank into the background slip and created a softer edge and a gray tone. Design styles also differed from one region to the next. In Chaco Canyon angular lines were painted in stiff, tense strokes and more of the surface was white than black. The Mesa Verde style featured broader, smoother lines and more black than white. Textile designs were favored in Kayenta pottery. Pairs of lines started to be joined at angles and the resulting cell was filled in with large swaths of paint.

In the Pueblo IV time period starting around 1300 AD polychrome ware became popular and utilized white, black, brown and purple paint on red orange or yellow slips. The earlier symmetrical lines and dots began to be replaced by fields of color. Sacred iconography, such as birds, feathers and suns, were worked into the designs. Also at this time the large group known as the Anasazi began to withdraw and compartmentalize into smaller groups called Pueblos.

The final classification of pottery is Pueblo IV, circa 1680 to present day. Regional traditions within the various Pueblos can be readily identified.

Pueblo IV Regional Variations in Design of Pottery Producing Pueblos:

Northern Tiwa Pueblos - Picurís and Taos: Both pueblos use micaceous clay which fire to an orange, gold or bronze color. Embellishment is rare but the artist may incise the vessel or decorate it with three dimensional clay figures but not with paint. During firing the surface of the vessel may develop dark "clouds" which may be the only decoration (See Picurís Pitcher).

Tewa Pueblos - Santa Clara, San Juan, San Ildefonso, Pojoaque, Tesque, Nambé: Historically the Nambé pueblo used micaceous clay but also produced plain black utility ware. Production dwindled until the 1970's revival when Nambé started borrowing design elements from other pueblos such as red and black polished ware and painted feathers, kachinas and pawprints.

Tesque once produced black-on-cream and polychrome wares like neighboring San Ildefonso but recently make micaceous, burnished black ware and painted figurines.

Pojoaque made micaceous ware in the past but now only make pottery in the style of the surrounding pueblos.

The pueblos of San Ildefonso, San Juan and Santa Clara make highly polished black and red ware (See San Ildefonso Pot). At San Ildefonso the polished black or red ware is often painted with a matte slip of the same color to create designs. This process was re-established by its most famous practitioners, Maria Martinez and her husband Julian, in the early and mid 20th century. Bear paw motifs have become something of a trademark in Santa Clara. Santa Clara red and black ware is often carved before firing. In addition to red and black polish ware San Juan pueblo artisans create tan pottery with burnished stripes of red slip. All of these pueblos also create polychrome pottery in varying styles.

North East Keres Pueblos - Cochití, Santo Domingo:
Cochití pots are usually red-brown on the base and inside with the rims outlined in a black line with a break in it. Clouds, animals, birds, rain and flowers are painted in red or black on a cream slip (See Cochití Pot).

Symmetrical and bold patterns painted on a cream or red base are often utilized in Santo Domingo polychrome. Occasionally stylized natural designs like corn plants and flowers appear.

In the 1600 the Jémez pueblo made black on white ware but did not continue the tradition. In the last 50 years a rebirth of potting has occurred and styles from the surrounding pueblos have been combined in Jémez pottery.

Acoma is well known for its black on white geometric patterns but there are polychrome pottery as well. The paint is matte and the lower portion of the vessel is often orange in color (See Acoma Pot).

The pottery made at the Laguna pueblo is almost indistinguishable from that made in Acoma. Laguna designs are somewhat stronger and simpler than Acoma and the larger areas of background tend to be left exposed (See Laguna Pot).


Isleta examples are similar to Laguna but the addition of white into the polychrome paints creates a pastel color scheme.

Zuni potters use black, brown and red paint on white or red backgrounds. The long employed designs include deer, rainbirds, flowers, rosettes, crosshatching and scrolling. The arrow running from the mouth of the animal, primarily deer, to the chest is referred to as the "heartline motif." (See Zuni Example) The rims circling the pots may be black or red and the bases brown.

In the 1600 the Jémez pueblo made black on white ware but did not continue the tradition. In the last 50 years a rebirth of potting has occurred and styles from the surrounding pueblos have been combined in Jémez pottery.

The Pueblo artists are responsible for their own designs, whether painted or incised. They could be inspired by ancient elements handed down from generations past or from objects seen everyday. Some highly stylized elements are difficult to recognize without previous knowledge. The step-like patterns are often referred to as "kiva steps" or "clouds." The dragon like beast encircling a pot is a mythical water serpent. However, the true meanings of the designs are often known only to the artist. In many instances it came to them in a dream and even the artist can't give them explanation.
A progression in form is evident from the earliest styles shown in sherds to the most complex designs on the bowls and pots. Pueblos are distinguished from one another by certain unique elements found on the ceramics. The objects of utility and beauty in this exhibit are meant to be a small representation of the many artists and techniques used throughout the centuries in the American Southwest.


This exhibit and its accompanying text was prepared by Sarah Gettys for Bryn Mawr College's Collection

The images, unless otherwise noted, are photographs taken by Molly Greenfield for Bryn Mawr College's Collections

The map of the Four Corners Region, taken from the book Beauty from the Earth, is included courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.

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