Native American pottery: A quick intro

Collecting Native American pottery is prime if you have a penchant for clean, geometric forms, vibrant colors, expert craftsmanship, or if you simply love artifacts that tell stories with roots in some of the earliest cultures and traditions of North America. Today’s market for Native American pottery showcases an incredible variety of styles and techniques, so before you invest take a moment to familiarize yourself with the history of American Indian pottery as well as some of the most collectible styles.

Native American Pottery: From Function to Flair

One of the oldest artistic traditions of the North American continent, the history of Native American pottery spans several thousand years. The earliest pots were created primarily by the cultures of the American Southwest for the functional purposes of eating, cooking, and storing food. Using materials at hand, these early peoples harvested clay from pits nearby riverbeds and mixed it with a temper – such as sand or crushed charcoal – that would help to minimize the shrinkage of the clay when fired. This rich clay mixture could then be baked either in the heat of the sun or the fire into a durable form.

As the years progressed, Native American cultures began to create increasingly decorative designs to complement their earthenware vessels. This transition is owed in part to the growing use of clay vessels in ceremonial or ritual performances. Taking stories from their cultural traditions or motifs from the natural world around them, artisans excelled at innovating with both form and color across their pottery.

Making Native American Pottery

Early creators of Native American pottery relied on three main pottery techniques:

Coiled pots

In this method, the potter rolls out their clay into a long, serpentine form and then begins to wrap it into a coiled shape. With each level the coil is gently pinched together and, when the vessel has been completely coiled, the sides would be carefully sanded or smoothed either by hand or by honed stone to create a uniform vessel.

Slab pots

Rather than rolling out clay in a rope-like manner, slab pots are formed by taking clay and flattening it against a surface using hands or tools like a paddle.

Pinch pots

Smaller pots could be made by beginning with a ball of clay that would be slowly pinched and pulled outward into a vessel form.

These traditional techniques are typically still employed by Native American pottery makers today.

The Most Historic Native American Pottery

Serious collectors of Native American pottery tend to celebrate the pieces crafted by the Southwestern cultures of the United States between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. These cultures (and their pottery production) are often grouped by their geographical boundaries:

Anasazi Pottery

The historic cultures that inhabited the Colorado Plateau known as “The Four Corners” are typically known as the “Anasazi”. Pottery from these cultures is often conjured in white or gray clay and can be adorned with an incredible array of both geometric and organic motifs.

Hohokum Pottery

The Hohokum were the cultures that dominated much of Arizona’s deserts to the south. Though equally varied in their pottery output, Hohokum red-on-buff pieces – featured red figures on a buff clay surface – are some of the most coveted.

Mogollon Pottery

The Mogollon describes the cultures that consumed the space between Anasazi and Hohokum territories. One of the most celebrated pottery cultures to come from Mogollon terrain was that of the Mimbres, whose wares feature a marvelous variety of motifs.

Modern Masterpieces of Native American Pottery

Though Native American cultures were decimated by the 18th-century Spanish onslaught, Pueblo Native American cultures were able to endure and, in doing so, keep the artistic traditions of Native American pottery alive. “Pueblo” can refer literally to a small village or cluster of houses, but it can also mean a loose cultural network of individuals. Among these pueblos, an incredible array of vibrant, striking Pottery was produced. Some of the key Pueblo Native American pottery to seek out include:

Zuni and Hopi Pottery

“Hopi pottery is famous for its intricate painting… There is nothing else quite like it”

Diana Pardue, curator at Heard Museum

Two of the most thriving Native American cultures that are near neighbors to each other, the Zuni peoples of central New Mexico and the Hopi culture of northern Arizona both have cultivated a vibrant pottery tradition. Their vessels are characterized by innovative forms decorated with various flora and fauna. Many Zuni and Hopi pots are conjured with clay that exudes a rich warm yellow or amber hue, however, ample white-ground pots also exist that are further emblazoned with red and black additions.

Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pottery

Situated in northwestern New Mexico, both the San Ildefonso and Santa Clara cultures have fostered a pottery tradition distinct in the region. They set their designs apart by etching patterns and elements into the surface of their clay. This gives each piece a strikingly dynamic surface made all the more powerful with the application of uniform, saturated matte glazes.

Acoma Pottery

Not to be outdone, Acoma pueblo pottery ranks among the most envied by collectors thanks to its delicate forms and intricate decorations. Often taking the form of matte-finish white-ground pottery accented with forms conjured in polychrome, Acoma vessels often balance the refined form of geometric decorations with an inventive array of organic motifs.

Pinch That Perfect Piece of Native American Pottery

Though these examples only scratch the surface of the myriad designs and styles one can find in the market, they illustrate nevertheless why collectors go so crazy for perfectly preserved pieces of Native American pottery. The exceptional artisanry combined with the history infused in each of these traditions results in a body of ceramic work beyond compare. Moreover, the availability of strong specimens available at almost every price point makes the Native American pottery market very compelling for the new collector.