Native American Pottery: History, Facts & Symbols

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

North American history is full of examples of Native American art. The art of Native American pottery making can be traced back to around 2,500 BC. While many Native American cultures have disappeared over time, there are many examples of exquisite pottery being made to this day. This lesson will focus on the history of Native American pottery and facts about pottery making and the symbolism used in decoration.

Native American Pottery: History, Facts, and Symbols


While the earliest pottery is thought to have been made by Asian hunter-gatherer tribes around 13,000 BC, the earliest Native American pottery appeared about 4,000 BC. The most widely known Native American pottery is from the civilizations of the American southwest, but the oldest Native American pottery was actually found on Stalling Island near Augusta, Georgia, and is about 4,800 years old. No one really knows if the pottery making of the United States southeast was brought there by other indigenous peoples or if it developed independently. Ceramics from northern Florida cultures date to 2,460 BC and ceramic pieces found in Nebo Hill, Missouri date to 1,750 BC.

Pueblo Indian Pottery
Pueblo Indian pottery

It is believed that pottery making in the southwestern United States came to the Chaco area, in what is now New Mexico, from Central America. The oldest known pottery from this area is only about 3,600 years old. The descendants of those people, the Anasazi, then migrated over large areas carrying the tradition of pottery making with each settlement and personalizing the end result.

Native American Potters
native american pottery making

The appearance of ceramic artifacts generally coincides with the advent of a sedentary lifestyle that revolved around agriculture rather than a nomadic lifestyle. Some experts believe that pottery was discovered by accident when woven baskets were covered with mud to make them watertight. When the basket was put over the fire for cooking, the clay hardened.

Pottery was made throughout North America by tribes from coast to coast. As tribes died off or were moved from their ancestral land, pottery making also died off. Some tribes found a commercial market for their ceramic pieces thereby ensuring the continuation of their craft.


Most Native American pottery is hand built using either coil or slab techniques. Clay is gathered, debris removed and temper and water added. Clay shrinks as it dry so tempers , non plastic materials, are added to the clay to prevent it from shrinking and cracking during the drying and firing process. Some tempers used by the Native Americans include crushed rock, plant fibers, crushed shells, charcoal, and wood ash. The clay is then wedged, or kneaded, and the surfaces smoothed to eliminate air bubbles. Clay is formed into a pot by the desired technique, the surface smoothed and then allowed to dry to leather. The surface is then sanded, or polished, with wet stones to create a smooth surface and left to dry. The dry pot is then decorated and fired.

Most Native American cultures had clay sources close to their home. This clay could be dug out as a packed dry mud or a soft stone. The clay is pounded into a powder, mixed with temper and water, and soaked for a week. If the clay is watery enough, it is used for slip, which can be used as a glue to hold coils or slabs together or for decoration.


In many instances, pottery is left undecorated leaving only the natural beauty of the clay. Other times it might be decorated with slips or pigments or even incising, or digging into, the surface. Most cultures had their own signature decorations and these varied from tribe to tribe.


The firing of the clay is what hardens it. Different types of firing produce different temperatures which in turn produce different effects. Firing techniques range from open bonfires to pit and mound fires. The Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States use bonfires that reach about 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Cherokee potters built earthen mound kilns with the pottery and wood chips on the interior, which would bake the pottery for up to 4 days.

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