Treasures from the Basement: Ancestral Puebloan Black-On-White Pottery

As many of you may already know, our museum has an extensive and diverse collection - far beyond what we have on exhibit at any given time. Given this, the purpose of these Treasures from the Basement articles is to show off some of the incredible objects that we have not had the opportunity to exhibit. In addition, we hope it will draw attention to our ongoing effort to make information on, and images of the entire collection, available on our public online database.

This entry will focus on our collection of Ancestral Puebloan black-on-white pottery.

The Ancestral Puebloans, better known as the Anasazi, were a sophisticated cultural group that flourished in the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico between 800 CE and 1300 CE. Though Ancestral Puebloan may not roll off the tongue quite as easily as Anasazi, the latter is a Navajo word roughly meaning “enemy ancestor,” and is thus more an expression of that culture’s relationship with later Puebloan societies than a descriptor of the civilization that peaked and receded long before the Navajo arrived in the southwest. That said, there is hardly a better-known ancient native culture in North America, much less the southwest, than Ancestral Puebloans. This is mostly due to the spectacular ruins they left clinging to sheer cliff walls and rising from desert canyons. Between Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Canyon De Chelly National Monument, and numerous others, they lay claim to some of the most professionally studied, and publicly visited, archaeological sites in the U.S. Their disappearance in the mid-13th century, once thought to be a great unsolved mystery, aided their widespread notoriety. It is now widely understood that some combination of environmental-agricultural pressures, and both internal and external warfare, caused them to either move south to join with societies such as the Mogollon people or consolidate into smaller communities that persist today as the modern pueblos.

Although the soaring towers of Mesa Verde may be the best-known image of the Ancestral Puebloans, it is their distinctive black-on-white pottery that proved to be their most prevalent and influential artistic calling card. Ancestral Puebloan society was diverse and geographically dispersed. They produced several different, highly-distinctive pottery styles in various regions, but black-on-white is the signature style of their heartland at its peak. 

To be clear, most black-on-white isn’t all that white. The Ancestral Puebloans constructed their pottery out of a high-quality light gray clay that is prevalent in the region, and over time, as potters seemed to prefer lighter-colored finished products, they perfected the use of the slip (a thin layer of very fine clay applied before firing) to achieve the lightest grey possible.

It has been suggested the Ancestral Puebloans were the first of the native southwestern peoples to develop pottery for trade and artistic prestige, not to mention mundane utilitarian purposes, though they certainly weren't the first to develop ceramics. The evolving complexity of black-on-white designs seems to support this idea. Our collection features vessels of varying design, from elegant geometric patterns to complex cross hatching. Ancestral Puebloan designs continue to echo through those used by Puebloan potters today as an artistic link to their ancient forbearers.

At the same time, pottery has always been an intimate art form, traditionally crafted to be used by one’s family or community. This intimacy is easy to see in the dark carbonized clouds caused by the unpredictable firing process, the marks of the fingers that worked the clay and even evidence of home repairs made a thousand years ago. The child-sized bowl (pictured below) shows clear evidence of a well-documented pottery repair technique wherein two holes would be drilled on either side of a spreading crack. The owner would then thread wet rawhide through these holes and tie it. As the rawhide dried it would shrink, tightening around the affected area and halting the progress of the crack.

We invite you to view all of our Ancestral Puebloan black-on-white pottery on our online database, and for further information on ancient southwestern pottery recommend the American Southwest Virtual Museum  and the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies Pottery Typology Project.