General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 18 Apr 2021/2 Flower
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Artist’s illustration of Aztec/Mexica pottery

Aztec pottery

Every Aztec/Mexica household, however poor, would have owned some pottery: essential were a large jar for storing water and pots for cooking beans and soaking maize kernels in overnight. Rough and plain, basic kitchenware was made by non-specialists, who also hand made (for wealthier families) plates, serving bowls, goblets, cocoa jugs, sauce dishes and more. The Mexica had access to an abundance of finely-textured clay, orange-coloured after firing, and they wasted none of it... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Hand making pots remains a huge cottage industry throughout Mexico today
Hand making pots remains a huge cottage industry throughout Mexico today (Click on image to enlarge)

Other clay objects for use more in temples than in homes included incense burners (some of them over 3 feet in height), ritual vessels, funerary urns, braziers, stamps and spindle whorls. The potter’s wheel, and the use of glazes, was unknown. There was, though, a much finer grade of red and orange coloured pottery, made by experts who had learned their craft as apprentices, that was tastefully decorated (usually on the inside of open bowls) and elegant in style. Several beautiful examples of Mexica jugs - identifiable by their high necks with a spout, curved handles and spherical bodies - have survived: their polished red paint was often decorated with ornamental designs in black, the finest of which were of spiral motifs that might evoke the movement of the liquid inside. The designs were usually applied before the piece was fired, using very thin brushstrokes.

Not even the best Aztec pottery was good enough for the Mexica elite
Not even the best Aztec pottery was good enough for the Mexica elite (Click on image to enlarge)

Even the best Aztec pottery, however, wasn’t good enough for the elite of Tenochtitlan, who demanded objects made by the famous pottery-making centre of Cholula, to the south-east of the capital city, a region with its own artistic tradition. The Spaniard Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that Moctezuma II ate only from colourful dishes from Cholula, a type also used for offerings to gods and in burials. Cholula pottery is distinguished by its polychrome (many-coloured) decoration in red, brown, black, yellow, orange, blue-grey and white, that contrasts with the simpler two-colour decor on Aztec vessels. Cholulan potters went in for more complex designs including stylized feathers, butterflies, abstract patterns and figures of gods, men or animals drawn in a style similar to that used in codices.

Examples of elegant Aztec pottery painted in rich warm colours
Examples of elegant Aztec pottery painted in rich warm colours (Click on image to enlarge)

Experts have noticed a change in design in Aztec pottery, from around 1350 to the time of the Conquest - from relatively simple, abstract motifs and patterns to more naturalistic impressions of birds, insects, butterflies, plants and fish, sometimes surrounded by ornamental borders, no doubt reflecting the more ‘international’ style that the Royal Household in Tenochtitlan had developed a taste for.

Simple abstract motif from a Culhuacan potter - representing the early phase in Aztec ceramics
Simple abstract motif from a Culhuacan potter - representing the early phase in Aztec ceramics (Click on image to enlarge)

Pottery making has been called ‘the greatest New World craft’ (George Vaillant) - perhaps no other continent has such a complex range of form and design. Like traditional costume design, almost every village or town had its own particular style. The Aztecs, lacking the wheel, ‘built up their vessels with strips of clay, relying on their keen eye and sensitive fingers to achieve the desired shape’ (Vaillant). By the end of the 15th century the coarse, heavy, crude productions had given way to thinner, more delicate objects bearing more sophisticated designs, as fine as any ever made in the Americas.

Heavily ornamented borders on Chalco pottery
Heavily ornamented borders on Chalco pottery (Click on image to enlarge)

Moctezuma Aztec Ruler exhibition catalogue, edited by Colin McEwan and Leonardo López Luján, British Museum Press, 2009
Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray, B. T. Batsford Press, 1968
The Aztecs of Mexico by George C. Vaillant, Pelican Books, 1950

Picture sources:-
• Main illustration - commissioned for Mexicolore from Felipe Dávalos
• Hand making pots: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• All other photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore

See a stunning example of Cholula pottery (incense burner)

Examples of domestic Aztec pottery

Pottery dish

More Aztec pottery dishes!

See just how much pottery there was in an ‘ordinary’ Aztec house...

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