Shapes and Forms: Jars, Pots and Ollas

Fine line, rain, bird element and geometric designs on a polychrome olla Polychrome olla decorated with bird element, fine line, rain and geometric designs
Robert Patricio, Acoma

9 1/2 in H by 12 1/4 in Dia
Cloud, roadrunner and geometric designs on a polychrome jar Polychrome jar decorated with roadrunner, cloud and geometric designs
Ruby Panana, Zia

5 3/4 in H by 6 in Dia
Bird, flower and geometric designs on a large polychrome jar Large polychrome jar decorated with bird, floral and geometric designs
Thomas Tenorio, Santo Domingo

13 1/4 in H by 10 1/2 in Dia

"Jars, Pots and Ollas" covers a wide range of Native American pottery. Olla is a Spanish term for "large pot." It implies a large storage jar or water jar. In excavating many ancient ruins, archaeologists (and illegal pot hunters) have found many large storage jars. There was a time, too, when the Southern Tewa potters of the Galisteo Basin area were coating their pottery with leaded pigments to seal them better. That area is close to the ancient turquoise and lead mines in the Cerrillos Hills. That pottery was so popular back then that pieces of it have been found scattered from the Colorado River east across the Llano Estacado (the Staked Plains) of west Texas and into the forests west of the Mississippi. The Spaniards ended that production in 1696 when they seized those mines for the lead to make bullets and cannon shot and forbade the puebloans access. Shortly after that, Spanish-introduced diseases took a toll on the whole area and the few remaining survivors finally abandoned their pueblos and moved north to the Tewa pueblos on the Rio Grande.

At Tuzigoot National Monument near Clarkdale, AZ, I came across several large ollas on display in the Visitor Center. Sadly, none of the staff knew any more about them than what was printed on the signage. So I went home and did some research.

Those reassembled ollas had another large jar inside them. The whole was buried in the floor of a living space and acted as a "refrigerator." In the old days, they kept the outer jar filled with water and kept perishables in the inner jar. The dirt provided insulation aginst the heat while evaporation kept the interior jar cool.

Tuzigoot was a Sinagua pueblo in the Verde River Valley, part of the Verde River Confederation. Construction there began around 1100 CE and continued to about 1400 when the whole area was abandoned. It seems the early 1380's were significantly cooler and overly wet with lots of flash flooding. After about 1390 the area got really hot and dry. It was about the same time as that abandonment when the more warlike Tonto Apaches and the Yavapais moved in. How closely timed those migrations were may be why most pueblos in the area were burned as they were being abandoned.

As essentially sedentary farmers, jars and ollas were also used for corn and grain storage: they kept the bugs, snakes and rodents out. In many ancient pueblos they were also used for cooking food. Many of today's puebloans prefer to have their beans cooked in a hand-made, often micaceceous jar. In the early days of Spanish colonialism, the European settlers traded with the various pueblos for their storage jars and cookware. When Amish traders arrived in the mid-1800's with enameled cooking ware, the production of utilitarian pottery almost completely died out. When the tourist market opened up in the 1880's and that demand for pottery increased, it wasn't the same in most places. The only pueblo where large hand-made clay jars were still being made was Zia. And by then, the shapes of and designs on, the pottery of most pueblos had already been somewhat polluted by the influence of the Spanish and early Euro-Americans who'd flooded into the area after the Mexican-American War of 1847-1850. As an example: Acoma potters long used Mimbres-influenced images of birds in their decorations. When the Amish arrived, they brought wooden crates filled with enameled cookware. On the exterior of those crates was the Amish parrot. That Amish parrot is now the "traditional" parrot painted by most Acoma potters.

Some Hopi, Zuni, Zia and Acoma potters still produce large ollas but mostly as artwork for sale to the descendants of the Euro-American invaders. A large jar these days may be 12 inches in height and diameter. Most are smaller, between 4 inches and 10 inches in height and diameter. I'm seeing most market action in the area of pots small enough to be packed well and placed in the overhead storage bins of most commercial aircraft. Considering that so many of the people younger than baby-boomers are becoming globe-trotting nomads, that particular size of pottery may be the future for most Puebloan and Mata Ortiz potters.