Anasazi Pottery

Nothing is more ubiquitous in the study of Anasazi civilization than the pottery they created, used, and left behind. Chaco Canyon is no exception and evidence of this property is still found in relative abundance. To this day, you can come across pottery sherds in situ around the structures in Chaco. It is hard to comprehend how many millions of pottery bowls, canteens, ollas, ladles, seed jars, mugs, and decorative items must have been created by the Anasazi during the 11 centuries they were the primary occupants of the southwest USA.

With functions for both cooking vessels and water storage, the pottery of Chaco Canyon’s most valuable function was likely its ability to store the precious resource of water securely, for long periods. These large pottery vessels for storing water are known as ollas. If the traditional ways extent back to Chacoan times, these ollas would have been carried upon the heads of women as they trekked back and forth from water sources.

While Chaco Canyon is famous for its pottery, scholars estimate most of the pottery in the canyon was actually imported, likely acquired through trade. One possible reason for acquiring these essential pieces of pottery, used for cooking and various types of storage, is that firing clay pottery required the use of large amounts of valuable fuel wood, which was not easy to come by and therefore, it would be considered necessary to use it for the more important tasks of heat and cooking.

There is almost unlimited variety in the shapes and sizes of the bowls, jars, canteens, seed jars, pitchers, etc. Anasazi pottery is documented as being present in the American Southwest from 200 AD on, but pottery at Chaco first appears in 450–500 AD. Settled farmers use ceramics more than nomadic tribes, so it stands to reason as the Chacoans populated the canyon, built permanent structures, and began using agriculture as their primary food source, that the use of pottery would increase, as it is suitable for cooking over a fire and took less time to produce than weaving baskets would require.

While many variations of creating these wares exist, the most common method of making Anasazi pottery was coiling. Unlike most would imagine, a pottery wheel was never used. This is how the process works for this pottery:

Balls of wetted clay are mixed with crushed rock, sand, or crushed pottery (as temper). These are rolled out into long, thin strands. These strands would be added one on top of the other around a base, the sides of the pot getting higher with each strand. The coils were then smoothed by hand or with tools to seal the piece. It should be noted, smoothing tools were not simply utilitarian. It seems the potters took pride not only in their finished wares, but the tools they used as well; smoothing tools inlaid with turquoise and design have been found.

Once the shape of the pot was formed, it was dried then fired. Afterwards, it was decorated.

The Anasazi were masters of firing and decorating pottery. It is amazing that sherds found today, having been exposed to the elements for over a thousand years, yet still retain vibrant colors and patterns. The original colors were likely incredibly bright and well-defined, considering the inevitable dulling that occurs over centuries of sun and blowing sand.

Early pottery was plain and simple, utilitarian in nature, typically called greyware. Simple bowls appeared first, and then larger mouthed vessels used for cooking and food preparation, followed by bigger, narrow-mouthed jars likely used for storing and transporting water. Soon after, other shapes appeared, including animal shapes, gourds, and more elaborate containers with pouring spouts.