Native American Coil Pots

By Macaulay, Sara Grove | School Arts, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Native American Coil Pots


Macaulay, Sara Grove, School Arts


As early as 200 BCE, at least one woman was using a new vessel that didn't leak or burn up, which still allowed her to boil water and heat food without tossing hot rocks into the pot. Some people believe that pottery was discovered by a cook who lined a basket with clay, let it dry in the sun, and then left the clay-lined basked too close to the fire. The basket burned away, and in the process, fired the clay.

With this introduction, our seventh graders embarked on a studio journey, exploring the traditional techniques of Native American coil pottery.

A Story about Pottery

Early potters of the Southwest learned the skill of pottery making from an outsider who was probably from Mexico. The earliest kind of pottery was a coil pot, made by coiling long ropes of clay in a spiral. The coils were pinched together carefully to hold water and store food. Pots were also buried with the dead to help them in the afterlife.

Early potters developed the coil and scrape method, coiling long loops of clay, then scraping the surface with a small stone or potshard until it had a smooth surface and the desired shape. Then it was fired upside down over a bed of coals burned down from wood or dried dung with more wood or dung piled around the vessel.

The Mimbres, one of the first people of the Southwest, began to decorate their pottery with painted designs around 700. Two hundred years later, possibly because of Anasazi influence, they began to make the black on white pottery for which they are remembered. Black and white pottery played an important role in the ceremonial and religious life of the Mimbres people. They buried their dead under the floors of their dwellings and covered the head of the corpse with a bowl. Vessels used for this purpose were symbolically "killed" by punching a hole through the bottom.

Mimbres potters made their bowls by coiling long thin strips of clay starting at the center of the base and building coil upon coil to create the desired shape. Next they smoothed it, inside and out, with a scraper and burnished it with a smooth stone. After the pot had dried, they covered it with white slip and, after the slip had dried, burnished it again. Then it was decorated with natural and geometric designs. The way of life of the Native American people has always reflected a deep respect for nature. For this reason, the plants, animals, and landscapes around them have inspired most of their art.

In Anasazi pottery, corrugated cookware was common. Jars, which are corrugated on the outside and smooth on the inside, conduct heat much faster than a pot that is smooth on both sides. An added bonus is that the corrugated pattern is not obliterated by the soot and smoke of the cooking fire. Corrugated jars were made using the coil and scrape construction methods for the interior surface, while the exterior retained the pattern of unsmoothed, pinched coils. The coils were not usually one continuous band as they were in Mimbres pots, but each layer was a separate, complete loop with another distinct circular coil placed on top. …

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