By Dave Lewis
In an era when people use DNA kits to trace their origins, consider this: All of us, regardless of ancestry, are descendants of Neolithic cultures that made and used clay pottery. How many times you put “Great” in front of “Grandma” or “Grandpa” to go far enough back to find a pottery-maker or pottery-user depends on your ancestors’ culture and on geography, but go back far enough and you find relatives shaping clay into bowls, cooking pots and storage jars (or using pottery in their daily lives). Pottery-making marks a major step in human progress.
Stone Age people, testing uses for natural materials, discovered that clay can be shaped into useful forms and when dried and heated in the sun or fire, becomes durable and nearly waterproof. Ancient Chinese cultures discovered this 10,000 years ago; in England, 5,500 years ago; and in the American Southwest, 3,500 years ago. Eventually, various cultures discovered copper and bronze and worked them into utilitarian products, reducing the need for clay pottery. This didn’t occur in the Americas until after European contact.
Regardless of culture, clay pottery was in use for thousands of years. Once utilitarian needs were satisfied, pottery-makers turned to aesthetics -- creating ever more beautiful shapes, colors and decorative motifs. The resulting explosion of unique pottery types became a valuable tool for archaeologists and anthropologists studying human history, migration patterns, trading routes, even diet (based on residues in pots).
For example, anthropologists studying the native Prescott culture of eight hundred or more years ago discovered a great deal from pottery. A permanent exhibit in Sharlot Hall Museum’s Pre-History Room displays dozens of pieces of pottery, wildly varied in material, color, size, shape, function and decoration, no two pieces alike. The pots are superimposed over maps indicating their origins. Every piece was found in Prescott; none were made here. Some are traced to cultures more than a hundred miles away. Clearly, the Prescott culture had a vigorous trading system.
But, what about pottery made by the Prescott culture? That’s here, too, but was also found at distant sites where it was imported by other cultures. What trade goods did the Prescott culture export? Like any trade system, they exported things they could find or produce locally that other people wanted. Residue in some exported pottery suggests sugar-rich partially-dried agave root was carried from Prescott. It’s just a theory, but if the importers added water to the agave root and left it to ferment, they could produce a tasty adult beverage.
Not every individual was a pottery-maker. Some people specialized in hunting, farming or making clothing and some in making pottery. Some villages subsisted by making pottery to exchange for food and other goods in short supply.
Pottery making was then, and is now, difficult. Many Southwest Indian cultures keep ancient pottery-making traditions alive by following their ancestors’ practices . Contemporary artist Melissa Antonio of Acoma Pueblo describes the process. She walks more than three miles to a remote area to gather heavy buckets of clay; spreads it out to dry; filters and grinds it by hand; tempers it and adds water to make it workable; forms it by hand into desired shapes; smooths it with tools ranging from wooden paddles to stones to Spam can lids. Ms. Antonio then makes her own paint brushes of yucca fibers and makes her paints from minerals and plant materials. She fires her pots in a kiln and finishes the decoration. Except for the kiln and buckets and a wheelbarrow to carry raw clay, she does everything as her ancestors did.
Ms. Antonio will join featured artist Aaron Cajero and other pottery-makers from Hopi and half a dozen New Mexico pueblos, at the 22nd Annual Prescott Indian Art Market, July 13 - 14 at the Sharlot Hall Museum.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at https://www.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles.l. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to email@example.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 2, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information or assistance with photo requests.