Preservation Magazine, Fall 2021

The Ancient Art of Pottery at New Mexico's Acoma Pueblo

Melvin Juanico remembers his grandmother making traditional Acoma pottery during the summers he spent with her at Sky City, the nearly 1,000-year-old village and National Trust Historic Site in Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. “We would collect dried cow patties to burn for the firing process,” he recalls. “They would make a dome out of a metal grid and broken pottery pieces.”

Juanico’s grandmother was following a time-honored technique created by her ancestors. Acoma artisans would collect clay from certain places on their land, mix it with finely ground shards of old pottery, soak the mix in water, and hand-form vessels with thin yet sturdy walls. After the pieces dried, they would apply a white earth slip made of sandstone dirt strained through cloth, polish the surfaces with smooth stones, and paint designs using a brush made from a yucca plant.

Three Historical Pottery Pieces at Acoma

photo by: Sky City Cultural Center & Haak'u Museum

Historical Acoma pottery includes (from left) an olla jar that may date to the 1920s or '30s; a slightly larger olla jar from the 1900s; and a piece believed to have been made in the 1930s or '40s.

The geometric designs often contained fine lines representing rain, and orange bands at the bottom and top of the vessel to symbolize the sun—as with the historic Acoma pottery pieces shown. “Because it was believed that the sun rotates around Mother Earth, we have the [orange] above and below,” Juanico says. “Our ancestors made pottery every day—mostly women, but some men, too. They needed pottery to store water and cook in. It’s how our ancestors survived.”

Now the operations manager at Sky City Cultural Center & Haak'u Museum at Acoma Pueblo (where these and other historical vessels will soon be on display), Juanico still makes pottery using most of these same techniques. So does his wife, Marietta P. Juanico, as well as a handful of other Acoma artisans. But he worries that the ancient process is disappearing from use. “We want to bring traditional pottery painting and making back,” he says. “This is what Acoma is known for. We need to continue taking pride in our traditions.”

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Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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