Lesson Plan

Pottery of the Ancestral Pueblo

Pottery in Museum Storage at Aztec Ruins
Pottery in Museum Storage

NPS Photo

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Grade Level:
First Grade-Twelfth Grade
American Indian History and Culture, Anthropology, Archaeology, Art
1 hour (several hours if students form their own pots)
Group Size:
Up to 24 (4-8 breakout groups)
National/State Standards:
Students use subjects, themes, and symbols that demonstrate knowledge of contexts, values, and aesthetics that communicate intended meaning in artworks.


Each pot sherd has a story and helps to complete the picture of a people in the absence of a written history. The ancestral Pueblo people created pottery for utilitarian, ceremonial functions and rituals, and trade. The styles of the pottery found at Aztec Ruins had specific relevance to their particular pre-historical, cultural context and intended use.


·       Identify the stylistic attributes of Acoma, Jemez, San Ildefonso, and Santa Clara pottery and distinguish between the traditional Acoma, Jemez, San Ildefonso, and Santa Clara pottery design motifs and forms

·       Recognize the connection between the objects and their cultural background

·       Create and design similar objects decorated with similar stylistic motifs


Pottery was produced by a method called coiling and scraping. A clay "snake" is coiled around in a spiral, forming the base to a vessel (a bowl, for instance). Additional "snakes" or coils are added on, creating the basic shape of the vessel. Then the coils are scraped together, erasing all signs of the individual coils. The ancestral Pueblos probably used shaped pieces of wood or gourds as "scrapers" to do this work. Smooth stones were used to "polish" the surfaces of bowls.

Ancestral Pueblo pottery is called Black-on-White. The white is from the color of the clay. The black paint used for the designs was made from boiled plants (like beeweed or tansy mustard) or from crushed rock with iron in it (such as hematite). Paint brushes were made from the fibers of the yucca plant.

Today you can see many examples of our own culture's use of designs. For instance, most of our clothing has some design, pattern, logo, or motto on them. These elements may be important to the wearer or may not mean anything at all. This also holds true for decorations on our tools, dishes, houses, cars, etc. The ancient Pueblo people were no different. They too used designs in their daily life. These designs may have had specific meaning to them or may have just been decoration. Unfortunately, we can't ask them where they got the inspiration for their designs. Modern day Pueblo people have helped archaeologists in explaining some ancient images. Because of their ties with the ancient Pueblo people, modern Pueblo people can give unique interpretations to past designs.


Art making tools and materials: clay and metal scrapers

Teacher may wish to display photos, textbooks or actual examples of pueblo pottery from southwest pueblo potters. Teacher may also check out pottery sherds from Aztec Ruins Replica Trunk .



Students use subjects, themes, and symbols that demonstrate knowledge of contexts, values, and aesthetics that communicate intended meaning in artworks.

Park Connections

Aztec Ruins Monument contains the remains of large ancestral Pueblo structures. The ruins were named when European settlers mistakenly attributed them to the Aztecs in Mexico. The largest preserved structure is the West Ruin, a D-shaped great house constructed in the early 1100s. With close to 400 rooms, the site was occupied for over 200 years. It was probably built as a center of trade and ceremony. The Great Kiva, a major religious building situated in the center of West Ruin's plaza, was rebuilt in 1934 by Earl Morris, archeologist for the American Museum of Natural History. By 1300 A.D. the ancestral Pueblo had vacated the sites and left the Animas river valley possibly due to a combination of drought and social factors. The potters at Aztec Ruins produced corrugated graywares and painted whitewares. Some of the same designs found at Aztec Ruins indicate the pots were traded from other regions.

Lots of pottery was found during the excavation of Aztec Ruins from 1916-1922. Archeologists still study that pottery to better understand when different areas of the site were constructed, trade networks, ancestral Pueblo diet, and many other important questions. Sherds are still visible on the ground today in areas of the park. It is illegal to remove pottery sherds from national parks and public lands. Encourage 
students to leave pottery in place whenever they find it. Archeologists can only learn from 
the pottery if they know exactly where it was left, and the Pueblo people believe the pottery should be allowed to return to the soil. 


Extension Activity 1: Native American Coil Pots Lesson Plan 

There are 20 Pueblo villages left in the Southwest; there were at one time in history 200. Each of the 20 Pueblos is famous for art and/or crafts and each has a specialty. Maria Martinez lived in the Pueblo of San Ildefonso and she was famous for creating black pottery. Read and skim the magazine about Maria. Mention that, like all Native Americans, Maria respected the earth and its resources. She only took enough DIRT for one pot at a time so that she did not waste it. Remind them to look around at lunch and be aware of what we waste! 

Grade Levels: 2-5 grades 

Time Required: Three 45 minute lessons 

Objectives: familiarization with Pueblo Indian arts and crafts, lifestyles, value systems of Native American Pueblos, Maria Martinez and her famous black pottery; understanding the concepts of coil pottery construction; ability to construct a coil pot.

Key Terms: Pueblo, Maria Martinez, black pottery, slip, scoring

Procedure Part 1: Divide a clay chunk into 3 equal pieces and roll each new chunk into a coil. It takes a little practice, using a forward rolling motion with the hand held straight and using palms and gentle pressure. It works best to stand and use a forward rolling, then lifting, hand motion. When the clay moves toward the edge of the table, lift and move it back, starting over. It does not work well to roll the hands back and forth over the coil. Roll each chunk into a coil, then roll coil up and place in bag. Wet paper towel and drop into bag with coils, write name and section on the tag. Gather ends of bag and put on twist tie. Make sure the whole bag is closed tight. 

Procedure Part 2: Pass everyone a paper towel and round slab circle. (Teacher should put last name and class section on bottom of each.) Teacher does a demonstration of scoring and painting slip around top edge of slab. Add coil, pressing gently, pinch off and smooth together ends when it is wrapped around slab and they meet. Build three rows high, and then add some decorative finishes for the last two rows, such as S shapes made from coils, waves made over a finger, or rolling little balls, pinching them flat, and adding them in openings made by the wave designs. Be sure to stress that everything that is added MUST be scored and slipped. Also stress that the clay coil pot should not be picked up. Turn the paper towel as you work to build it, and the shape will not get lopsided. Add two more coils in the same way. There are now three rows high on the slab. The last two rows may be any design we have talked about. Smooth out any cracks by painting water or slip over them. Projects must dry and be fired. 

Procedure Part 3: Paint acrylic gloss medium tinted with blue tempera on whole top and sides of coil pot. Do not paint the bottom. Make sure you get into all the crevices with the bristle brushes and acrylic medium. Clean and dry the brushes thoroughly. Gently fan pot till completely dry. Paint the sienna over the whole pot covering the acrylic with sienna. Do not paint the bottom. Teacher wash off the sienna, leaving the brown color in the deeper parts to create an antiqued effect

Additional Resources

National Park Service: Ceramics at Aztec Ruins, 2012. https://www.nps.gov/azru/planyourvisit/upload/Ceramics_Site_Bulletin.pdf

Lister, Robert H. and Lister, Florence C.:Anasazi Pottery Ten Centuries of Prehistoric Ceramic Art in the Four Corners Country of the Southwestern United States,Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico Press, 1978

Barry, John W.: American Pottery: An Identification and Value Guide, Books Americana, Florence, Alabama, 1981

Trimble, Stephen:Talking with the Clay, The Art of Pueblo Pottery in the 21st Century, 20th Anniversary Revised Edition, School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2007

Haynes, Allan and Blom, John: Southwestern Pottery Anasazi to Zuni, Northland Publishing, April, 1997

Lamb, Susan: A Guide to Pueblo Pottery, Western National Parks Association, Tuscon, AZ, 1996


Incised: fine lines scratched through the surface of an unfired pot.

Kaolin: a very fine, soft white clay.

Leather hard: stage of dryness at which an unfired pot is not longer malleable.

Ollas: Spanish for “pots” often used to carry water and formed at the bottom to fit the bearer’s head.

Paste: mixture of clay and temper.

Polychrome: painted with various colors.

Pueblo: Spanish for “town”. Now the traditional people of the Rio Grande and Jemez River valleys as well as Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi.

Puki: bowl-shaped object used to support the curved bottom of a pot.

Sherd: piece of broken pottery sometime called shard to reflect the British pronunciation.

Slip: liquefied clay applied over a pot to smooth and/or color it. Some slips have an important chemical reaction with certain paints.

Smothering: covering the posts with powdered fuel – usually manure – during firing.

Temper: gritty material added to clay to prevent a piece from shrinking or breaking as it dries or is fired.

Yucca: very fibrous evergreen plant that grows throughout the Southwest, used by some potters as a paintbrush.

Polishing stone: used to smooth the surface of the pot prior to applying slip or stain to unfired pot.

Scraper: curved tool usually made from a gourd to smooth and shape a coil pot.

Last updated: January 4, 2018