When the Spanish first entered the Southwest in 1540 they found crumbling ruins of abandoned pueblos. Vast areas of the Southwest had been depopulated by pueblo dwelling peoples about one-hundred years before the Coronado expedition arrived, leaving behind ruins, broken pottery and many unanswered questions.
One thing about the abandoned pueblos all over the Southwest that has intrigued and perplexed archaeologists and laypeople over the years is the question of how the ancient inhabitants made the beautiful pottery they left behind. Clues can be sought among other existing pottery making cultures of the Southwest, but this approach does not explain explain everything because these are merely related cultures using different materials and often different methods. Archaeologists have defined the various pottery styles and studied their evolution through time, but few people have attempted to authentically recreate the pottery styles of these prehistoric cultures. Replicating prehistoric pottery has proved challenging because there are many variables involved, elements like clay sources, construction techniques, firing temperature, and many others have to be just right to achieve results similar to the prehistoric potters. Another thing that makes it difficult is that the ancient potters were true masters of their craft, so trying to match their skills and abilities can take many years. While many native peoples of the Southwest continue to maintain their pottery traditions, the pottery traditions of these abandoned regions of the Southwest remain largely mysterious and unknown.
Today across the region people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds have taken up the mantle of the native prehistoric potters and through careful study and much experimentation, have successfully recreated many of the beautiful prehistoric pottery styles that were abandoned centuries ago. These experimental potters, part scientist, part artist, often work alone recreating specific pottery styles. The process for recreating lost pottery styles involves an immense amount of effort, starting with research, field work to discovery clay and mineral deposits that will produce the correct color, along with research in museums and libraries to discover what the ancient potteries looked like and what archaeologists know about these potteries and their production in ancient times. Finally a lot of trial and error and experimentation is involved to define the technology and the process. The results of careful research and diligent experimentation can be impressive as an ancient and forgotten pottery style is reborn, beautiful prehistoric pottery styles can then leave the museum behind and enter people’s homes as art.
One of the best known examples of a lost Southwestern pottery tradition being revived by diligent study and practice is that of Juan Quezada of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua Mexico. Inspired by the beautiful pottery found around the ruins near his home in Northern Mexico, Juan began trying to recreate this pottery, after years of work he was finally successful and began to teach the art to friends and family members. Today many people in his village are involved in the pottery craft and Mata Ortiz pottery is highly sought after and commands respectable prices. Other success stories include Clint Swink who discovered how to recreate Mesa Verde style black on white pottery, he now teaches others the lost art through workshops and through the book he wrote on the subject, Messages From the High Desert. Another example is the husband and wife team of Paul and Laurel Thornburg who have made a career of authentically recreating the pottery of the Mimbres culture that existed in Southwest New Mexico from about 1000 to 1250 AD. These are just some of the more successful and well known potters working at recreating lost pottery styles of the Southwest, other people working to recreate ancient pottery styles are located in just about every corner of the Southwest.
Usually if you wanted to meet a few of these artist/scholars and admire their work you would need to take a very long road trip across the Southwest, but this summer you will have the opportunity to meet many of them in one place when they come together on August 29 through 31, 2014 for the Southwest Kiln Conference in Tijeras, New Mexico, just east of Albuquerque. This event is billed as “an informal gathering of archaeologists, potters and other interested folks with an interest in ancient and modern ceramic technology in the Southwest” and has taken place most years since 2003. This year the conference will feature presentations on different aspects of Southwestern pottery, demonstrations and a barbecue, it culminates in several outdoor pottery firings using different techniques employed by the prehistoric potters. More information is available on the Southwest Kiln Conference website at www.swkiln.com.
Those ancient pueblo ruins still haven’t given up all their secrets, but slowly a small group of dedicated artists, researchers and archaeologists are cracking their long buried code. The benefits of their work are many, the human family as a whole is much richer when a lost art form is rediscovered, art lovers can own one of these pots in good conscience and archaeologists come to a better understanding of the ancient cultures of the Southwest.