The jar will soon crumble unless it is hardened in the fire. Modern manufacturers of dishes have special furnaces for this purpose but the pueblo woman builds her own each time: walls, firebox, and floor. She chooses a windless day, so that the fire will keep an even heat, but even then she is nervous. There is almost no way to be sure that a pot will come through safely, for some little change in the temper, the clay, or the heat may bring about a crack which will ruin the labor of days.

Early morning is the best time for firing, because the wind often comes up in the afternoon. The woman clears a space on the ground, builds a little fire, and sets the pots around it to get gradually warm. This will help to prevent cracks when they are really baking. When this preliminary fire has burned out, she starts to build her oven. First, she makes the floor on which the pots are to stand. In the old days, this was done with broken pieces of large pots raised on stones. Now the women use tin cans standing on end, helped out by scraps of iron or any piece of grating they can find. In the picture, (see frontispiece) Maria Martinez has placed a number of cans and is arranging the warm pots on them upside down. The bulging sides of the pots must not touch or they will be spotted, but the rims may touch and Maria is building a second layer of pots, with their rims on the bases of the first.

Behind her, in a galvanized iron tub, are some sheets of scrap iron, which she will use to build up the walls of the oven around the pots, so the fire shall not touch them. Old scraps of pottery formed the oven roof in early days for then it was not so large, since the women were not making pots for sale. In front of Maria are two tubs of caked cow dung, which is the main fuel. Cattle have been a blessing to the pottery makers, since the dried dung bums so slowly and evenly. Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma use sheep dung which, trodden into cakes in the corral, is just as good. In early days, they had to use wood- all but the Hopi, who found some soft coal in their area, dug it out and used it, just for pottery making. They use a little with the sheep dung still. Maria fits more cakes of cow dung over the sheets of iron which form the roof of her oven, so that the fire is above the pots as well as below them.

At the left of the cow dung is the pile of cedar bark which Maria uses for kindling. This will be pushed in under the pots and lit. Slowly the manure will catch fire and the potter has nothing more to do but to wait and hope that no wind will come up. She does not have to add more fuel for she has used the right amount to burn for as long as she needs-half an hour for the smallest pots and up to as much as two hours for larger ones. She has put in pots that are about of a size so the heat will be right for all of them. When the fire has burned out, the pots will be done, though sometimes she may poke aside the fuel and look at them to make sure how things are going. If she feels convinced, by the red hue of the pots, that they have had enough she will pull the fire apart. After the fire has burned out, the potter often leaves the pots in the oven all night, so that they may cool slowly. Otherwise, she pushes the sheets of iron aside and carefully removes the pots with sticks, setting them upside down to cool.

Firing Block Pottery

Under the subject of paint, we referred briefly to the firing of black pottery by smudging it with smoke. Plate IV-6 shows Maria and Julian Martinez, who are famous for the process, just after having covered their fire for this purpose. The fire and the oven were, at first prepared like any other. The pots, painted with a red slip, were baked for about half an hour. San Juan potters, who specialize in all-red ware, would have removed them at that time. Maria, instead, has left them in place and smothered the fire with dry manure. Behind her is a pile of ashes which she sometimes adds in order to keep the smoke in. The carbon in the heavy black smoke will settle on the jars, coloring them permanently. The polishing they have had gives a beautiful sheen, like jet.

 Firing black pottery

Plate IV-6. Firing black pottery.


The pottery process we have described is the very oldest, used by the early people of Europe, Egypt, and Assyria before the wheel, the furnace, and the glassy outside coat or glaze were invented. Until the time of glaze, no jars could be completely waterproof, and pueblo jars are not. It is true that the longer they are polished and the hotter the baking fire, the less porous they will be, but clay with its temper makes a surface full of tiny holes and drops will find their way through it. Pueblo women did not mind this, especially with jars meant to hold drinking water, for the drops evaporated on the outside of the jar and kept the water on the inside cool. If water had to be carried long distances, when evaporation would have been a waste, the potter made a small-mouthed jar and coated the inside with melted pinyon gum. Her food dishes held grease, which ultimately soaked into the clay and sealed it. White purchasers, who buy pueblo pots to hold flowers, give the inner wall a coat of spar varnish or set a glass inside them.

Otherwise, the outer polish is ruined by seeping water and the higher the polish the worse the result, as with the lustrous red or black ware of the Tewa.


The shapes of pots are more or less the same for all the pueblos. Mostly, they are simple jars and bowls for the covers, handles, plates, and figurines sold now have often been developed in response to the tourist trade. Women are adding numberless new shapes, such as candlesticks, bookends, and ashtrays.


These shapes, all but the bric-a-brac for sale, have been used by the pueblos for a thousand years and more. Colors, too, have remained the same, for the standbys were red and white clay, with black obtained in various ways. Yet each region had a variation of its own and sometimes kept the same style for a hundred years. Perhaps the women of those days were proud of their inherited patterns and perhaps they saw less of other villages than they do now. At any rate, students have found they can use these standard types of pottery to follow the journeyings of different pueblo groups. They can see where a new group joined an old one and brought another style. They can tell when a group split away from their friends and carried the old style to new places. They see foreign pieces and guess at trade with Mexico and southern Arizona. In fact, this habit of keeping to one style in pottery has been one of our chief helps in working out pueblo history. Experts examine the color and design of a pot, the shape, even the clay, temper, and kind of firing. Usually they can tell the period when a pot was made, the region where it was made, and perhaps the very pueblo.

 Most customary shapes of Pueblo pottery

Plate IV-7. Most customary shapes of Pueblo pottery, (from left to right) large storage jar, tall water jar, bowl, smaller water jar, small mouthed water jar, shallow bowl.

They do the same today. Only twelve pueblos now make pottery, yet under the stimulus of sale they have developed some forty styles. New ones are constantly appearing or old ones being revived. The New Mexico Association for Indian Affairs, which gives prizes every year for the best pots, has to give one prize for old style and one for new. Still, the styles fall into groups just as did those of earlier days.

Map of pueblo country

Plate IV-8. Map of pueblo country, showing modern pottery areas.

The list with the map above sorts out these groups by color for the ordinary observer. Temper and clay are not considered, since these require scientific analysis. However, the list of materials on page 86 will show that pueblos using the same general style often have access to the same clay, temper, and paint. Nor is shape considered in the list because most all pueblos have nearly all shapes. In any village, you can find jars ranging from squatty to slender, bowls deep or shallow. Where some form like the Hopi bowl has become a noticeable specialty, that is mentioned in the later descriptions. There have been many recent changes.

On the map, the pueblos using the same general style are enclosed by a dotted line. It is interesting to see that such pueblos do not necessarily speak the same language. Rather, they occupy the same river valley or general kind of country. Perhaps their women found the same materials and perhaps, too, they had a good chance to see one another's pots, no matter what language they spoke.

Map by E. H. Coulton

Map by E. H. Coulton, BIA.

The pages following contain pictures and descriptions of the styles used in all villages active in pottery making. They do not include San Felipe, Sandia, Pojoaque, Jemez, Isleta, and Santa Ana, which have dropped pottery for other pursuits. Among the others, notice the changes! Hopi and San lldefonso have revolutionized their former styles. Many of the Tewa are trying several fashions, new and old. Scarcely a pueblo is making the very same ware as when they were first studied about 1870. Indian art is moving and the pottery scraps show that, although the change is slow, there has always been change.

Black on cream

Plate IV-9. Black on cream, Santo Domingo.