One of my fondest memories is of travelling down to Mesa Verde National Park and being given pottery shards to piece back together like a puzzle. For many archaeologists, this seemingly fun task is actually of monumental importance to learn about ancient native Pueblo people.
One of the simplest yet important discoveries regarding pottery was how it was made. Using other artifacts found around old kilns made from dung, archaeologists have been able to deduce that Pueblo peoples made their pottery by making long coils of clay, stacking them, and then smoothing over the gaps with smooth pottery shards, and lastly firing them in a kiln heated by burning dung. They were then painted using a paste derived from boiled plants. This method is still used today making this discovery rather straightforward.
Another extremely evident characteristic of the pottery is the varying color of the clay used. Pottery was made using either grey or red clay. This is immensely important because the base color was determined by the location of the tribes who made the pottery. Certain tribes in Utah made the red clay pottery not for its color but because their environment was naturally more rich in oxygen than that of their southern brethren. This environment would oxidize the iron in the clay during the firing process and turn the pot red. Examples of such pottery have however been found much farther south in Arizona, which is important because it provides evidence that the tribes traded amongst themselves.
Similarly interesting is that the designs showed clear examples of linearity. That is, almost all pottery from specific time periods shows similar designs like zigzags, animals, etc. These time periods have been proven by dating sites using the rings in timbers of surrounding structures. This is especially interesting because it shows that ancient native cultures, like those of today cared about conforming to societal definitions of beauty. Archaeologists do not know why tastes changed, but presently this is very helpful because the designs of pottery at sites are yet another tool to help date a site.
Another important distinction that can be made about ancient native potters is that they figured out many uses for their pottery. Lots of pottery that has been found actually has no designs and shows clear scorch marks showing that pottery was used to cook, not just for decoration, rituals, or storage like it mostly is used for today.
What is perhaps most amazing is I have not presented anywhere close to all of the insights pottery has given archaeologists into past cultures. Pottery is just as useful today for archaeologists as it was for the people who made it. Because of the importance of these artifacts to present cultures, and all of the information that they offer archaeologists, it is undoubtedly more important than ever that sites are excavated as scientifically as possible so as to best preserve evidence of the ancient cultures that we still have so much to learn about.
Ortman, Scott (2006), “Ancient Pottery of the Mesa Verde Country: How Ancestral Pueblo People Made It, Used It, and Thought About It”, in Nobel, David Grant, The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Puebloan Archaeology, School of American Research Press, pp. 100–109, ISBN978-1-930618-75-6
Glowacki, Donna M.; Neff, Hector; Glascock, Michael D. (1998), “An Initial Assessment of the Production and Movement of Thirteenth Century Ceramic Vessels in the Mesa Verde Region”, Kiva, 63(3), pp. 217–41
Lang, Richard W. (2006), “Craft Arts of the Mesa Verde”, in Nobel, David Grant, The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Puebloan Archaeology, School of American Research Press, pp. 58–65, ISBN978-1-930618-75-6