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Prior to the coming of European, the people of both the North and South American continents had a wide variety of pottery traditions. However, there is no evidence that a Native American potter ever invented the pottery wheel. Because of this, all known Pre-Columbian American pottery was made entirely by hand, using a number of traditional techniques. These include sculptural modeling, press molding, coiling, and paddling. Functional pottery objects were produced by many cultures, as were figurines, masks, and ritual items.

Pottery techniques

The procedure for creating coil pottery favored in the Eastern United Statesmarker was more focused on preparing clay than in the West. The women would spend hours on end mixing the clay they had gathered with crushed seashells, sand, plant materials and other temper until they had precisely the right consistency; then wedging it to remove the air pockets and humidity that could easily make it blow up during firing. They would then pound out a flat circle of clay to serve as a base. While the potter was building the coils up, she was also deliberate to take the time to blend them together. Once they were blended nicely, there was no trace of the ropes of clay so carefully entwined to form the pot, no deviation in the thickness of the walls, and therefore no weaknesses. As a finishing touch, the pot was struck with a cord-wrapped stick to compact it and give it its final shape. American Indians have never used enclosed kilns, so the pot was put in a shallow pit dug into the earth along with other unfired pottery, covered with wood and brush, and lit on fire where it would harden and heat to temperatures of 1400 degrees or more. For a finishing touch, the surface of the pot would be rubbed vigorously with special stones, leaving the surface smooth and polished.

Pottery traditions

Many Pre-Columbian pottery traditions are well known to the general public and significant pieces are found in collections in most major museums. Among the best-known are pots found in the Anasazi ruins of the Southwest United States, pottery produced by a number of Pueblo peoples, also in the Southwest United States, and Maya ceramics found in southern Mexicomarker, Guatemalamarker and Belizemarker. Less well known pottery traditions include the Casas Grandesmarker region of Northern Mexico and the prehistoric potters of the Gran Cocle' Culture Area, Coclémarker Province, Panamamarker.

Pre-Columbian pottery artifacts are often found in tombs and ruins during modern archaeological excavations. However, during the early years of exploration on both continents, pots were removed without any records on origin and associated artifacts. This has resulted in many striking pottery items, some in prestigious museums, being held without documentation. The practice of "pot hunting" continues to be a problem for governments and academic researchers, as a black market for prehistoric pottery and artifacts flourishes in many areas of the world.

North American pottery

North and Northeastern cultures

Each of these main groups contained many tribes, each of which had adapted to their environments which were all slightly different. The four main groups were subdivided by the following geographic areas:

  • The Pacificmarker coast and mountains. Yukonmarker.
  • The Plains. Cree/Manitoba. Sioux.
  • The St. Lawrencemarker valley. Great Lakes. Iroquois. Maritime Provinces/St. Lawrence.
  • The North-East Woodlands (broad region, encompassing the woods near the Atlantic/maritimes to the tree-line in the Arctic).Inuit.

Southeastern/Central cultures

Southwestern cultures

Dating Southwestern pottery

Pottery Style Time Period
Basketmaker II 50 BCE-450 CE
Basketmaker III 450 CE-700 CE
Pueblo I 700-900
Pueblo II 900-1100
Pueblo III 1100-1300
Pueblo IV 1300-1600
Historic 1600-1880
Modern 1880-1950
Contemporary 1950-present

Central American pottery

South American pottery

150 px
  • Ceramics left at Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Brazilmarker are the earliest known ceramics in the Americas (ca. 5630 BCE)
  • Valdivia culture pottery created in coastal Ecuadormarker (ca. 2885 BCE)
  • Chavin Period (1200-300 BCE)
  • Paracas culture (600-100 BCE)
  • "Experimental" Period (ca. 400 BCE-1 CE)
  • Master Craftsman Period (ca. 1 CE-900 CE) broken into Mochica also known as the Moche culture, Early Chimu, Pre-Chimu, Proto-Chimu, etc. (200 CE-700 CE - Northern Highlands)and the Nazcamarker culture (300 BCE-800 CE) ref. Cahuachimarker, Southern Highlands.
  • Expansionist Period (ca. 900 CE-1200 CE) including Tiwanakumarker.
  • City Builder Period (ca. 1200 CE-1450 CE)
  • Incan Period (ca. 1450 CE-1532 CE)

Modern Native American pottery

Mata Ortiz Pottery - Juan Quezada
Several current Native American cultures continue their original pottery traditions, still producing ware for practical use and for sale to collectors. One of the most common kinds of pots made by native peoples of North and Central America is the olla. The unglazed pot is characterized by a spherical body and wide mouth. Ollas were made over a thousand years ago and almost all the tribes in the Southwest United States and Mexico still make them today.

Modern Native American artists working in clay include: Joseph Lonewolf, Nampeyo, Maria and Julian Martinez, Sara Fina Tafoya, Tammy Garcia, Juan Quezadamarker, Marvin Blackmore, and Al Quoyawayma. See List of Native American artists.

See also


  1. From Southwestern Pottery; Anasazi to Zuni, Allan Hayes & John Blom, Northland Publishing, 1996; (ISBN 0-87358-656-5).
  2. Silverman and Isbell, 365
  3. Josephy, 240


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