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Pueblo Pottery Meaning and Symbolism

Pueblo pottery is handmade by various indigenous Pueblo peoples. Many members of the Navajo Nation also create pottery; however, Navajo is not classified as a Pueblo. Over the years, Pueblo pottery has gained popularity due to its remarkable beauty and craftsmanship. Every Pueblo pottery piece brings its own unique charm. Ancestral Pueblo Native Americans used pottery for practical purposes as well as to express the different aspects of their culture.

Every generation of Pueblo potters has passed on time-honored traditions to the subsequent generation, which explains how even after 2,000 years, Pueblo potters today manage to produce Pueblo pottery in a manner most identical to the original method.

At Palms Trading Company, we strive to be a resource for collectors who want to deepen their understanding of the Pueblo pottery pieces in their collection and, in the process, establish a strong connection with them.

Pottery Forms

Here are some of the most recognizable Pueblo pottery forms:

Clay Pots and Vases

Pueblo pots and vases are made entirely by hand. Ancestral Puebloans made clay pots and vessels for practical purposes such as storing food and water or cooking and serving. They are produced using the traditional horizontal coil method instead of on a wheel. Some Pueblo potters produce clay pots and vessels by freely forming the shape.

Every Pueblo potter has a signature style that adds a touch of sophistication to their clay pots and vases. Pueblo pots and vases are made of micaceous clay, which can withstand heat up to 10,000 degrees.

Storytellers

Storytellers are a type of clay figure. Unique to the Southwest, they were developed by Helen Cordero of Cochiti Pueblo in 1963. These clay figures usually depict a male elder narrating a story to children. The mouth of the figure is always open.

The motif derives inspiration from the traditional “singing mother” motif – a figure of a woman with her mouth open, holding one or two children. Helen Cordero made the first contemporary storyteller to honor her grandfather, Santiago Quintana, a legendary tribal Cochiti storyteller.

The Pueblo Native Americans have a long tradition of oral storytelling. Stories are passed down from generation to generation. The Storyteller figure depicts the importance of the storytelling tradition in Pueblo culture. Artists in all 19 pueblos create storytellers in their own unique way to honor the tradition of storytelling.

Figurines

The Puebloans have been making clay pottery figures for centuries. Figurine creations were discouraged by Christian missionaries during the 16th, 18th, and 19th centuries. As a result, the art form wasn’t practiced widely during these periods. The 20th century saw the revival of the art form. Today, clay figurines are one of the most sought-after Native American pottery forms.

Seed Pots

Seed pots were traditionally used as storage vessels. They are enclosed on all sides, except for a tiny opening in which seeds are stored. Interestingly, seed pots are one of the most in-demand Pueblo pottery forms, thanks to their intricate designs and the unique patterns used by Pueblo artists to enclose pots.

Pueblo Pottery Symbols

The Avanyu

Pronounced Ah-Vahn-U, the Avanyu is a water serpent considered to be the guardian of water in Pueblo culture. It is portrayed as a horned serpent with lightning coming out of its mouth, which indicates thunderstorms that bring rain.

In Pueblo culture, the Avanyu is revered as the protector of water and the Pueblo people. The Puebloans consider Him a harbinger of storms, and the serpent deity’s curves are suggestive of flowing water. Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos depict the Avanyu in their pottery.

Feather Motifs

Feather motifs are usually painted or etched into Pueblo pottery. Feather symbolism is used to depict the importance of prayers in our lives and the importance of counting one’s blessings.

The Rain Parrot

The Rain Parrot is one of the most popular design motifs in pottery made by Acoma Pueblo. The motif signifies the importance of rain and water in the lives of Puebloans. The Pueblo people believe that birds led the ancestral Puebloans to water. In Puebloan culture, they are considered extraordinary creatures who can connect with the spirit world. Rain parrots are depicted to have a triangular beak and swirling tail feathers. Over the years, various stylized and contemporary versions of rain birds have gained popularity.

Fine Lines

The Puebloans live in the southern desert regions where rain is a blessing. Because water is essential to life, and plants and crops need water to grow, the Pueblo people use straight symmetrical lines on pottery to symbolize rain. They are often used alongside other symbols that depict other elements of nature.

Pueblo Pottery Styles

Acoma Pottery

A matte polychrome style of pottery, Acoma pottery features orange and black designs on a white background. Some pieces feature black fine line designs on a white background.

Acoma pottery is characterized by its intricate geometric patterns, unique color schemes, fluted rims, and thin walls. Acoma artists often incorporate hatching patterns and the Rain Parrot motifs into their pottery. Symbols are also used to depict other elements of weather and nature, such as rainbow bands, clouds, and lightning.

Hopi Pottery

Hopi pottery is famed for its brown-ish red fluid designs elegantly painted on a tan background. Hopi artists also use yucca leaves. To achieve this pottery’s distinctive color, potters first mine a gray clay and then fire pots in open pits using sheep manure or cedar as fuel.

Cochiti Pottery

The Cochiti Pueblo developed the Storyteller figure, but Cochiti potters also make pottery figurines in various other styles. They often include figures of people and animals in their pottery, and different motifs are used to represent rain, clouds, and lightning. Traditional Cochiti pottery is polychrome with a red interior and base.

Santa Clara Pottery                                                               

The pueblo is located on the western side of the Rio Grande River. The Santa Clara Pueblo has a 300+ years old tradition of pottery making. Some popular Santa Clara Pueblo pottery styles include the classic black and red ware and designs with three earth colors. Santa Clara potters often decorate their pottery with Pueblo symbols such as the Avanyu, the bear paw, and the feather pattern, which are etched, rather than painted, setting Santa Clara pieces apart.

Santa Clara pottery is known for its distinct deep engravings. Until the 1920s, most Santa Clara pottery produced was undecorated or blackware. In the late 1920s, Sarafina Gutiérrez Tafoya and her daughter Margaret Tafoya started creating deep-carved blackware. Contemporary artists use both traditional and modern styles and designs.

San Ildefonso Pottery

Located in north-central New Mexico, the San Ildefonso Pueblo introduced the black-on-black pottery style developed by Maria Martinez, one of the most well-known potters of all time. The pottery style features unique polished and black matte finishes. The style has made San Ildefonso pottery highly sought after.

Jemez Pottery

The Jemez Pueblo is located approximately 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque. Jemez pottery is known for its distinctive earth tone colors blending matte finishes with unique painted and etched designs. Traditional Jemez Pueblo styles died out in the 1700s when the Jemez people destroyed thousands of vessels to keep them from the Spanish invaders.

Modern Jemez pottery has a smooth, shiny appearance, with most designs being geometric patterns. Jemez potters either paint or etch these patterns into their pottery. A distinctive pot style popularized by the Jemez Pueblo, the Friendship Pot is decorated with turtles and features clay people molded to the top. Jemez potters utilize sgraffito, a unique technique of carving designs into the surface of a clay pot.

Santo Domingo Pottery

The Santo Domingo Pueblo, also known as Kew Pueblo, is located about 35 miles north of Albuquerque. Their pottery is distinguished by its dark black geometric designs, and Santo Domingo potters use buff-colored clay that can be molded into different shapes to create dough bowls, large ollas, and storage jars. The clay in the region is known for its elasticity.

Santo Domingo potters tend to use simple, bold designs, and these styles have changed little since the 1700s. Santo Domingo pottery also usually features figures of birds and flowers.

Zuni Pottery

With a population of over 10,000, the Zuni Pueblo is the largest New Mexican pueblo, located 40 miles south of Gallup, New Mexico. Zuni Pueblo pottery is made of clay and utilizes crushed pottery shards or rock to temper the pottery, giving unfinished pottery a distinct white color.

Zuni pottery is usually coated with a white or red slip and painted black or red.  Zuni potters focus more on design motifs rather than the symmetry of form. Zuni pottery features images of animals such as frogs, tadpoles, dragonflies, lizards, and the heartline deer/deer-in-the-house, an open-mouthed deer with an arrow extending from its mouth to the inside.

To learn more about these pottery styles and more, contact Palms Trading Company, a leading supplier of Pueblo pottery in Albuquerque. Our collection includes exquisitely crafted Pueblo pottery pieces. Call 505-247-8504 today!

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