Treasures from the Basement: Pottery of the Greater Ancient Southwest

As the first installment of this series focused exclusively on the most famous variety of ancient pottery from the Southwest, I think it is only fair that I round out the picture with a sampling of the other important contemporary styles to be found in our collection. While certainly not comprehensive, the following pieces provide an excellent sampling of the pottery traditions of the ancient Southwest.

    The earliest examples of domestically produced pottery in the Southwest come from the Mogollon. Inhabiting an area that includes modern southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, as well as bits of northern Mexico and west Texas; the Mogollon were likely the first farmers in the region with archaeological evidence of their activity stretching back to 300BCE - if not earlier. Sometime in the middle of the 3rd century CE the Mogollon fired Brown ware pottery in a style that would persist for well over a thousand years. Mogollon pottery is utilitarian first and foremost, but the simple forms they pioneered provide the bedrock for everything that was to come.

    The Hohokam occupied a corridor running through modern south-central Arizona from Phoenix through Tucson and down into northern Mexico, likely arriving in the region soon after their neighbors just to the east. Though the Mogollon may have been the first potters in the area, the Hohokam were likely the first to paint their pottery as early as the 5th century CE. Their Red-on-Buff ware is strikingly beautiful: pale tan to peach colored clay with twinkling flecks of mica dotting its surface, unslipped and painted with repetitious patterns that seem to express movement in muted red iron-oxide pigment.

    Our pottery specimens from the Kayenta region of northern Arizona are not so much examples of a separate tradition as they are reflections of a much larger trend that swept across the Southwest between 1100 and 1200CE. In the preceding centuries, Black-on-White ware had been the trade pottery du jour but around this time Black-on-Red ware came in to fashion. The phenomena, perhaps unsurprisingly, coincided with the recession of the large population centers of Chaco and later Mesa Verde, as much of their population may have joined with the Salado, Sinagua and Mogollon - all of whom had been working in Black-on-Red for some time by then. This era also produced some of the earliest examples of polychrome design and ushered in the late period of Pre-Contact pottery, where the traditions that would reemerge in the 19th century were largely cemented.

    The Hopi mesas of Northern Arizona host some of the oldest continually occupied communities in North America, so naturally they have a pottery tradition to match. Ancestral Puebloans merged with the local Sinagua people during the diaspora mentioned in the previous section around 1150CE, and were soon making pottery with mesas’ distinctive sunset yellow clay. The Black-on-Yellow ware from the following centuries, before the arrival of the Spanish, clearly foreshadows the iconic, modern Hopi style. Our collection includes two unusual specimens of corrugated Yellow ware from this period, a throwback to a much earlier Mogollon/Ancestral Puebloan form rendered in burnished orange-yellow.

    More images of, and information on, all of our ancient southwestern pottery can be found on our online database. We recommend the American Southwest Virtual Museum and the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies Pottery Typology Project to learn more.