Ceramics of Chaco
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Ceramics appeared in the Southwest around AD 200. In Chaco Canyon, clay pots were common by AD 450-500. As Chacoans began to depend on agriculture as a primary food source, they became more settled. A sedentary life style was conducive to building permanent structures, and the use of ceramics. Pottery is heavy and breakable, and isn't easily portable. However, it has several advantages over baskets. Pots take less time to construct, are watertight, and can be placed directly on the fire and used for cooking. They don't deteriorate with age.

Broken pieces of pottery, or sherds, tell the story about the ceramics made in this region or brought here in trade. Archeological investigations reveal that the first pots were plain gray. They were built by coiling thick ropes of clay. Pots were finished by smoothing the inside and outside surfaces with an object such as a gourd rind or a small pebble. By AD 550, the Anasazi began to produce painted pottery. Small, simple designs evolved over time into intricate designs that covered the exteriors of jars and interiors of bowls, the two primary vessel forms. Through time, plain grayware vessels also became more elaborate. Chacoan potters pinched the clay coils of utilitarian wares with their fingertips to produce the distinctive corrugated designs.

Archeologists group ceramics into "types" that date to different time periods. Types are identified by style, design and technology. Descriptive names are assigned to these types, often based on the locale where the type was first identified. Names include Red Mesa Black-on-White, Gallup Black-on-White, and Puerco Black-on-White.

Painted designs on sherds found in Chaco are predominately geometric. They echo patterns used by Anasazi throughout the Southwest. Black-on-White painted vessels are the hallmark of Chacoan pottery. Paints were made with mineral and organic substances like ground hematite and beeweed plants that turned black when fired. Analysis of pigment, firing technique, temper, and design style establishes when and where a pot was made. For instance, red-on-black pottery has traded into Chaco from the west and north, where this style was popular.

The type of clay and how it is fired determine the final color of a pot. Archeologists have found evidence of kilns in the Southwest, but most pottery was fired in the open. Controlling the amount of oxygen in the fire gave the potters control over the final color of the pot and the painted designs. The slip, a fine clay paste applied to the exterior, provided the background for the painted designs.

Temper, a substance mixed with clay to increase hardness and heat resistance, varies from region to region. If the temper identified in a sherd can be found in Chaco Canyon, the pot may have been made there. If not, then Chaco potters either traveled to get their temper material or the pot was made elsewhere or traded. Archeologists believe that most pottery was made elsewhere and brought into Chaco Canyon.

Pottery is a useful tool for archeologists because changes in designs reflect changes in cultural preferences over time. These changes can be used to form a temporal sequence. For instance, using a variety of dating techniques, archeologists have determined that Red Mesa Black-on-White designs were earlier in time than Gallup Black-on-White, the classic Chaco design style. Ceramic sequences help archeologists date sites based on sherds found on the ground. This is why it is important not to pick up sherds from archeological sites. Doing so destroys valuable dating information and deprives us information about the people who once lived there.

small montage showing several different representative Chaco ceramic objects

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