Anasazi Pottery: Then and Now

(Note: I have used the CE meaning Common Era and BCE, Before Common Era.)

Anasazi pottery has been made from 700 CE to the present. The great civilization of the Anasazi haunts and intrigues people and the beautiful pottery is much sought after.

Anasazi is a Navaho word meaning “Ancient Ones.” It also has a loose, vague sense meaning “Ancient Enemy.” The Anasazi were the people who built the famous cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. They existed from about 500 BCE to 1200 CE and settled in the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. They were variable and decentralized with different linguistic and political groups. Despite this, their pottery is instantly recognizable.

Before making pottery, the Anasazi made equally beautiful basket ware.
They began making pottery around 700 BCE The people settled in villages and grew squash, corn, and beans. They domesticated the turkey and supplemented their diets by some gathering and hunting. Trading was widespread. The Anasazi reached their peak around 1050 and began leaving their homes around 1200. By 1300, the great cliff dwellings were abandoned. It is thought that the people left due to severe droughts and attacks by the Navaho. The Anasazi are believed to be the ancestors of the Hopi, the Zuni, and the Pueblo. That they never really disappeared is shown by the unbroken creation of their pottery. With the coming of the Europeans, pottery making went into a decline, although women continued to make some. With the coming of the railroad and tourists production, quality, and prices went up.

A typical home probably had a fairly large number of pots and other ceramics for cooking, serving, and storing food. There were about six to seven ceramics for cooking and serving, three or four for storage, and at least one or two finely finished and decorated ceremonial pots. The everyday utilitarian pots were grayish and retained the coils of the structure. The pots were not flat on the bottom. They were made form sandstone and shale clay and the most valued pots held painted designs in red or black using brushes made from the yucca plant. They were fired in an open fire out of doors.

Restoration and conservation must keep in mind that Native Americans relate to pottery as more than an art form, they relate in a spiritual way as well. Preservation and analysis is done by several disciplines. Experts study food residues, carbon date, do pollen analysis and counts, and examine the geological characteristics in the matrix where the pottery was found.

Conservation and restoration considers:
1. Evidence of the original manufacture and wear patterns
2. Evidence of change or damage since original use
3. Modification or change from the present, which includes the restoration itself, which can take a toll on the original pottery.

Since the pottery is all low fired it is very delicate. Paints are often accidentally removed by washing of sanding and other procedures during restoration. There is often over painting when a person “restores” the pottery.

Now days any work done on the pottery should be made with an identifier that can be seen under UV light so that the pot can be identified as a restoration.

Today the making of fine pottery continues. Many potters use the old methods but grind up old shards to mix with the clay as a sign of respect and reverence for what has gone on before. The pottery is made with coils; hand polished, painted with a brush made from the yucca plant, and fired outdoors on the ground, not in a kiln. A pottery wheel is not used.

Many husband and wife teams make pottery today, the most famous being Maria Martinez and her husband. Maria Martinez is deceased and even her very small pots can fetch up to $3000. A good pot from a living potter can be found starting at around $75, although the work from better-known potters can sell for thousands of dollars.

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