General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Chloe Sayer

Question for January 2012

Did the Aztecs use the pottery wheel to make their pottery? Asked by Ravenscourt Park Prep School. Chosen and answered by Chloe Sayer.

Pic 1: Ceremonial vessel from Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city. Made c. 1470, it shows the face of the rain god Tlaloc. Museum of the Templo Mayor (Great Temple)
Pic 1: Ceremonial vessel from Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city. Made c. 1470, it shows the face of the rain god Tlaloc. Museum of the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) (Click on image to enlarge)

The earliest known Mexican pottery was made approximately 4500 years ago. Clay was transformed into storage jars (probably inspired by the squash and the bottle gourd), cooking pots of varying shapes and sizes, dishes and ritual vessels. The development of ceramic skills accompanied advances in agriculture, the rise of permanent settlements, the spread of organised religion, and the growing importance of long-distance trade.

The Aztecs had a high regard for the ceramic arts. Luxury and ceremonial items were created by Aztec specialists; they were also acquired as tribute or through trade. Complex decoration was achieved in a vast variety of ways. Utilitarian items such as cooking pots were probably made in rural households where production was combined with farming. Makers started to learn their skills as small children from parents and other relatives.

Pic 2: After the conquest of Mexico, Spanish influences affected the ceramic traditions of Aztec Mexico. The maker of this sixteenth-century vessel, incrusted with the mineral feldspar, combined his or her own traditions with those of Andalucia in Spain.
Pic 2: After the conquest of Mexico, Spanish influences affected the ceramic traditions of Aztec Mexico. The maker of this sixteenth-century vessel, incrusted with the mineral feldspar, combined his or her own traditions with those of Andalucia in Spain.  (Click on image to enlarge)

The question posed by Ravenscourt Park Prep School refers specifically to the methods that were current in Aztec times. The wheel, as far as we know, was not used by pre-Conquest potters. It was introduced after the Conquest by Spanish settlers, together with other aspects of European technology. Today many Mexican potters rely on the wheel to shape their wares, firing them in enclosed European-style kilns and sometimes using glazes. Interestingly, however, pre-European methods remain a feature of life in numerous places.

The techniques still used by traditionally-minded potters can help us to visualise the working methods of their predecessors. As in the past, family members often pool their skills. Local clay has to be ground, sifted and kneaded before use. The Nahua (as Aztec descendants are termed today) continue to make fine pots. So too do the descendants of other great civilisations.

Pic 3: Ceramic artist Reina Galán making a pot using the ‘Zapotec wheel’ in 1978. San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca State
Pic 3: Ceramic artist Reina Galán making a pot using the ‘Zapotec wheel’ in 1978. San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca State (Click on image to enlarge)

The town of San Bartolo Coyotepec in Oaxaca is famous for its jet-black ceramic wares. Although inhabitants no longer speak the Zapotec language, they are the proud inheritors of Zapotec culture.
Potters who adhere to tradition start each pot by pushing one hand into a lump of clay to hollow it out, then slowly building up the walls from the inside. Instead of the European wheel, potters use an ancient device known as ‘the Zapotec wheel’. The pot is placed on a board or tray, which rests in turn on a stone or upturned bowl. The potter is now able to spin the pot while remaining seated. Clay surfaces are polished with a lump of quartz, and finished work is fired in a pit below ground level. Before firing, the opening is sealed off with broken shards and mud. Pottery absorbs the soot and smoke, and emerges deep black.

Pic 4: Painting a hand-coiled pot in 1978 in the Tzeltal village of Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas State
Pic 4: Painting a hand-coiled pot in 1978 in the Tzeltal village of Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas State (Click on image to enlarge)

Maya potters in the Tzeltal-speaking village of Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas, use different methods. Long tubes of clay are coiled to form the walls of the pot. Surfaces are smoothed with a scraper and polished with a stone. Finished pieces, warmed in the sunshine, are fired in great bonfires and subsequently painted with earth colours.

Moulds are much used in modern Mexico, just as they were in Aztec times. Mushroom-shaped moulds are ideal for shaping deep plates, bowls, and the rounded base of mugs. Sometimes pots are made in concave moulds and joined vertically. In several potting villages, vessels are partially mould-made and partially hand-modelled. Toys and figurines are nearly always made in moulds.

Pic 5: Burnished pot, with an ivory-coloured slip and raised designs, from the Tzeltal village of Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas State
Pic 5: Burnished pot, with an ivory-coloured slip and raised designs, from the Tzeltal village of Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas State (Click on image to enlarge)

Why are hand-made ceramics still important in modern Mexico, when factory-made utensils of metal and plastic are so readily available?
They remain important because people in rural areas still use pottery artifacts in their daily lives. Large pots may be needed to store liquids and grains. Perforated pots, termed pichanchas, are used for washing and straining maize; tortillas are heated on comales (griddles) and these are often locally made from clay. Many cooks believe that food tastes better when it is prepared and served in earthenware vessels. During festivities, incense is burned in incense burners.

Pic 6: Inés Navarro making ‘tlayudas’ (large maize tortillas) in 2012 in Santo Tomás Jalieza, Oaxaca. She uses a pottery ‘comal’ (griddle) over an open fire
Pic 6: Inés Navarro making ‘tlayudas’ (large maize tortillas) in 2012 in Santo Tomás Jalieza, Oaxaca. She uses a pottery ‘comal’ (griddle) over an open fire (Click on image to enlarge)

Pottery sellers often travel long distances, offering their wares in rural markets. A woman who plans to buy a pot may tap it with her knuckles: if it rings, she knows that it is sound. It seems likely that similar tests were carried out by purchasers in Aztec times. Then, as now, makers sought to create utilitarian objects that were durable and strong. Then, as now, utilitarian objects (made without the European wheel) successfully married form and function, achieving both elegance and beauty.

All photographs by, courtesy of and © Chloë Sayer

A little more about pottery in Mesoamerica...

Chloe Sayer has answered 4 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs wear winter clothes?

Are there any communities left in Mexico where they still follow the old religion?

Did the Aztecs use the pottery wheel to make their pottery?

What was the Aztecs’ most prized possession? (2)

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