Acoma Pueblo Pottery Unmasked

Acoma Pueblo Pottery Unmasked  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

Acoma Pueblo sits atop a sandstone mesa 6,460 feet above sea level.  To visit the city 65 miles west of Albuquerque is to voyage back in time. 

Quiet.  Ancient.  Eerie.

Acoma Pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States, since about 1150 A.D.  Little has changed over the centuries. 

The 250 or so earthen dwellings on the mesa are home to about 50 year-round tribal members.  Most of the tribe lives in housing below the mesa.  They come in the summer, often for ceremonies.  There is no electricity, water or sewer. 

What they do have are 360 degree views, a sense of place and a connection to the earth that defies explanation. 

I remember my mother and I, we’d sit on the big smooth stones outside our house in the early morning before it got too hot and we’d grind the clay and then the temper.  Sometimes all the ladies would sit on the big stones around the plaza, grinding the clay.
— Rose Chino Garcia

Acoma is a matriarchal society.  The buildings on the plateau are passed on from mother to daughter and owned by women.

The pueblo was built high up as a way to expose invaders.  It’s a defensive work of art.  A fortress of stone and adobe.  Prior to the 20th century, access to Acoma was only possible through a crude hand-cut, sandstone stairwell.  Sun-baked, windy and dry in the summer, the desert landscape is unforgiving.   

“The city was built on a high rock. The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top. The houses are three and four stories high.”  That’s how  Francisco Vaques de Coronado described Acoma in 1540.  He was the first white man to visit the pueblo also known as Sky City.

When I visit Acoma I feel privy to an ancient civilization.  Something I can’t quite describe.  Maybe better left unsaid.    

The tribe’s connection to their ancestral homeland is palpable like that of a mother to her infant.  There’s deep reverence here for the land. 

For 1,800 years the people atop the mesa have made pottery. The clay the tribe used over the centuries was gathered from sacred tribal land.  They sifted and cleaned it the same way for centuries.

"I remember my mother and I," said Acoma potter Rose Chino Garcia, "we'd sit on the big smooth stones outside our house in the early morning before it got too hot and we'd grind the clay and then the temper.  Sometimes all the ladies would sit on the big stones around the plaza, grinding the clay.”

The potters’ skill was passed on from generation to generation. Traditional Acoma pottery was fired at high temperatures making pots strong.  To the pueblo people the clay is alive, made of the very same stuff out of which the Gods created the human race.

Designs include polychrome parrots or macaws, deer, spirals, clouds, dragonflies, butterflies and geometric shapes.  Until about 100 years ago pottery was primarily a household trade.  Pots were used for rituals, cooking, storing food, and as water jugs.  They were also traded, sold, and given as gifts.  The tourist trade changed everything.    

For the pueblo people pots are deeply spiritual.  They’re sustainers of life itself. 

Pots and shards are as close as we’ll get to understanding the people who hand built and used these sacred vessels. Each pot is unique.  Each pot is a metaphor of the person who created it. 

Their form, design and technical mastery have made them works of art.   

On Dec. 14, Bonhams featured a selection of Acoma pots in its Native American Art auction.  

Acoma Pottery

Jar; fine line pattern of complementary eight-pointed stars; Lucy Lewis potter; 5 inches high;  $1,159.

Jar; polychrome; progression of antlered bucks parading about the sides; each with heartline arrow motif; Lucy Lewis potter; 5 inches high;  $1,952.

Jar; four-sided complex geometric arrangement; scalloped rim; 10 ¼ inches high;  $3,660.

Jar; polychrome; two design registers; bold seed and feather arrangements; 12 inches high;  $7,320. 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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