Casas Grandes is both a municipality and an archaeological district in northern Chihuahua State, Mexico. The archaelogical district includes the pre-historic ruins of Paquimé, a city built between about 1130 AD and about 1450 AD. Archaeologists are uncertain as to whether Paquimé was settled by migrants from the Mogollon/Mimbres settlements to the north or by Anasazi elite from the Four Corners region in the United States or by others. And it could easily have been all of the above.
Over the years Paquimé grew into a massive complex with structures up to six and seven stories high with multiple Great Houses in the surrounding countryside. However, most of the major complexes and great houses were abandoned by about 1450. Archaeologists have asked among local nomadic tribes to learn what happened and the clearest story they got was the people of Paquimé lost a war and everyone abandoned the area, migrating into and over the mountains to the west. Today, the site of Paquimé is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mata Ortiz is a small settlement inside the bounds of the Casas Grandes municipality very near the site of Paquimé. The fortunes of the town have gone up and down over the years with a real economic slump happening after the local railroad repair yard was relocated to Nuevo Casas Grandes in the early 1960's.
That's when the local folks started digging ancient pots from all the various sites around the valley. American dealers offered big money for a single, unbroken ancient pot, more money than most men made in a couple weeks working regular jobs. The looting had been going on for years but it began in earnest with the relocating of the rail yard. However, it wasn't long before there were hardly any pots left.
Many of the first potters in Mata Ortiz were among those digging up and exporting the ancient patrimony. At a certain point, they found it easier to make new pots and decorate them like the old pots, then fire them and "antique" them. That led to the hunt for family members who knew the old ways to make pottery and could teach them. Almost every family had a grandmother or great aunt who still made pottery but there were some obstacles to overcome: like refining and tempering the different clays and learning how to work with them. Sooner or later, virtually all the originators of what is now Mata Ortiz pottery paid a visit to a man named Manuel Olivas who lived in Nuevo Casas Grandes.
Manuel had started making pottery after learning how from his grandmother in the early 1950's. In those days he was selling his newly made antiqued pots on the table next to pots that had been pried from the Earth after being abandoned 600 years ago.
The town was in steady decline until Juan Quezada, a poor farmer who gathered firewood in the area of the archaeological site, found fragments of ancient Paquimé pottery and even older fragments of Mimbres forms with bold black-on-white designs littering the ground. Those pot sherds inspired him to locate nearby deposits of clay and to try to recreate how that pottery had first been made.
Quezada was successful in his quest to rediscover the ancient process using slightly more modern techniques (although still no one in the present tradition uses a potter's wheel). He learned to use sand and other coarse materials for temper. He discovered that dried cow dung made an excellent and inexpensive firing fuel. He persevered in his efforts and by 1971 had produced a kind of polychrome pottery. Since then, most pottery-making in the area has used innovations in the design and decoration of the pots but the materials and the basic crafting of the process have remained the same.
By the mid-1970's, Quezada had attracted a significant number of traders and his work was becoming a commercial success. That is when he began teaching his techniques to his immediate family. They in turn taught other family members, friends and the younger generations. Both women and men were included from the beginning.
Contemporary Mata Ortiz pottery was mistakenly called Casas Grandes prehistoric pottery in the early years of its production. But the potters of this tiny village have made such an impact on the pottery communities, including many awards and special recognition from the Presidents of Mexico, that Mata Ortiz pottery is now becoming known around the world.
Today, pottery production has changed the village in many ways as now there is electricity, plumbing, vehicles and more for the residents. Virtually everyone in the small town (2010 population: 1,182) makes their living by working in some part of the pottery-making process, from potters to clay-gatherers to firewood collectors to traders.
Mata Ortiz pottery incorporates elements of contemporary and prehistoric design and decoration, and each potter or pottery family produces their own distinctive, individualized ware. Young potters from surrounding areas have been attracted to the Mata Ortiz revival and new potting families have developed while the art movement continues to expand. Without the restraints of traditional religious practices or gender constraints, a vibrant flow of new ideas has enabled the pottery of Mata Ortiz to avoid the derivative repetition common to virtually all folk art movements. This blend of economic need, gender equality, cultural expression and artistic freedom has produced a unique artistic movement in today's community. It truly is a culture of "What does the clay wish us to make today?"