With the beginning of agriculture in the prehistoric American southwest, the practice of pottery making was born and these early peoples began their transition from basketmakers to potters. It is generally believed that their first fired pottery developed by the accidental burning of clay-lined basketry. Many primitive pots show surface indentations consistent with being formed in baskets.
Pottery was used for carrying water, storing gathered foods, and holding seeds for planting. Shapes varied according to use: round-bottomed cooking pots, concave-bottomed water jars that could be carried on the head, and storage vessels for food and water. As with much of the craftwork that could be created around the home, women were probably the primary pottery-makers.
Early vessels were plain for the most part, with obvious evidence of coiling or pinching. Decorative elements arose later, as regional pottery traditions developed and people recognized the artistic potential of the form. Even later, pottery began to serve a variety of social and even ceremonial functions. Pottery also became an important trade item, bartered by pottery-making peoples to those tribes who had not developed the skill.
Southwestern American Indian pottery was, and still is, constructed by the coil-and-scrape method. Native clay was dug, crushed, and refined. Coils of damp clay, mixed with a 'temper' consisting of sand, ash, or ground pottery shards, were laid and smoothed by hand to shape the vessel. Only the simplest of tools were used - gourd or shell for scraping, a smooth pebble for fine-polishing the surface, chewed-yucca brushes for applying painted decoration, and a hole in the ground for firing the piece. The potter's wheel and kiln never appeared. Although their methods were primitive, some astonishingly beautiful, symmetrical, and delicate pieces were created.
There were several prehistoric Native American pottery making cultures, including the Anasazi, Mogollon, Hohokam, Salado, Sinagua, and Casas Grandes. While these ancient cultures have vanished, some of their descendants are still represented today by the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and Arizona. Today, pottery made in these Pueblos remains one of the world's great expressions of ceramic art and tradition.
The modern population of the Pueblos is still small, ranging from several dozen to a few thousand, and each is represented by at most a very small number of active potters. Eleven Pueblos still maintain a significant pottery tradition today. These are the Acoma, Jemez, Laguna, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Zia, and Zuni of New Mexico and the Hopi of Arizona. Twelve more preserve a somewhat smaller modern involvement in pottery making. These are the Pueblos of Cochiti, Isleta, Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Tesuque of New Mexico and the non-Pueblo Maricopa, Pima, and Tohono O'odham tribes of Arizona. And while its population is meztiso rather than American Indian, the village of Mata Ortiz in Chihuahua, Mexico has inherited the Casas Grandes pottery tradition. Each of the Pueblos (and non-Pueblo tribes) has, over the centuries, developed its own unique types of form and decoration - most styles can be recognized at a glance and attributed to the appropriate people, even by beginning collectors. Traditional potters still mine clay from their own family or clan pits, hand-coil and hand-polish their pots, decorate them with naturally-colored clay slips or with pigments derived from local plants or minerals, and fire them outdoors in a manure- or wood-fueled pit.
Following the arrival of Europeans in the southwest, Native American pottery went into a long decline, and it wasn't until the late years of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth that a revival of the ancient pottery traditions began at some of the Pueblos. This was almost exclusively due to the efforts of individual, or at most a few, women in each case. As the mainstream American culture began to become aware of the resurgence of Native American pottery in the southwest, the best potters soon were the subject of much recognition and demand, and Indian pottery became a highly collectible artform throughout America and the rest of the world. It remains very much so today.