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Pottery and Pottery Making

A potter paints designs on a large El Paso Polychrome water jar. The painting was done after the vessel was dried and polished, but before it was fired. Mural by George Nelson, courtesy of the artist and the Institute of Texan Cultures.
A potter paints designs on a large El Paso Polychrome jar. The painting was done after the vessel was dried and polished, but before it was fired. Mural by George Nelson, courtesy of the artist and the Institute of Texan Cultures.

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Restorable bowl from fill of Room 25. It is El Paso Polychrome, hallmark of the El Paso phase (or Pithouse period) of the Jornada Mogollon.
Restorable bowl from fill of Room 25. It is El Paso Polychrome, hallmark of the El Paso phase (or Pithouse period) of the Jornada Mogollon.
Large sherds of El Paso Polychrome, jar (left), bowl (right). The rim sherds from the site showed that jars outnumbered bowl by 4 to 1. In part this probably reflects the fact that the site was not located near any known source of water.
Large sherds of El Paso Polychrome, jar (left), bowl (right). The rim sherds from the site showed that jars outnumbered bowl by 4 to 1. In part this probably reflects the fact that the site was not located near any known source of water.
Worked sherds. Center, gaming or counting pieces; left, paint palette; bottom, pottery smoother made on sherd of Casas Grandes tradeware; right, pottery jar rim template or shaper.
Worked sherds. Center, gaming or counting pieces; left, paint palette; bottom, pottery smoother made on sherd of Casas Grandes tradeware; right, pottery jar rim template or shaper.
Pottery-making tools on the floor of Room 26, including sherd paint palettes, paint, polishing pebbles, and unfired clay bowl (bottom center).
Pottery-making tools on the floor of Room 26, including sherd paint palettes, paint, polishing pebbles, and unfired clay bowl (bottom center).


Pottery is the most common and often the most informative artifact category at Jornada Mogollon sites. Whole pots or even reconstructable ones are rare. Mostly what we find are thousands of sherds: pottery is fragile, and all it takes is one slip and a nice pot becomes a pile of sherds. But this works out nicely for archeologists—the sherds can tell us what kind of pottery it is, where it is from, what kind of vessel it is, as well as something about disposal patterns. Most sherds wound up in trash heaps, but others were left where the pots were dropped.

El Paso Polychrome makes up over 90% of the ceramic material from Firecracker Pueblo and is typical of the late El Paso phase. Jars outnumbered bowls by approximately four to one. Less common vessel forms are pitchers, ladles, and "terraced-rim" bowls. Whereas in earlier Jornada Mogollon sites the undecorated El Paso Brownware pottery is often the most common type, the only undecorated piece of local manufacture at Firecracker is a small pinch bowl (a bowl formed simply by inserting a thumb into a wad of clay and pinching the clay against the palm—something a child might do).

In addition to the locally produced wares, there are many sherds of tradewares including Chupadero Black-on-white, Gila Polychrome, and polychromes and other wares of the Casas Grandes culture. These types would not be unexpected for a site dating to the fifteenth century. However, there are sherds from other pottery types thought to have been made centuries earlier such as Mimbres Black-on-white. These sherds could have been picked up at abandoned sites nearby or perhaps represent heirloom pieces.

Pottery is also helpful in examining distribution patterns within sites. One major question at Firecracker is the time difference between the pithouse and pueblo occupations. To help answer this question we looked to see if there were any differences in the pottery types and forms present in each area. An analysis of 1,037 rim sherds (which are more informative and varied than body sherds) of El Paso Polychrome found no significant differences between the rim attributes of the pithouse and pueblo occupations, suggesting that these are very nearly contemporaneous.

Pottery Making

With so much pottery it is only to be expected that pottery making was a common activity at Jornada Mogollon sites. And ample evidence of this was found at Firecracker. The best evidence is the finding of pottery-making tools, small deposits of unfired potter's clay, and an unfired and unfinished pottery bowl. Unfired potter's clay from one of the pithouses was matched to a clay bed not far from the pueblo, suggesting that El Paso Polychrome was being made at Firecracker. Pottery-making tools were found lying on several floors of both pueblo and pithouse rooms; perhaps the potters intended to come back or maybe pottery tools were easy enough to find or make.

Many kinds of pottery-making tools were recognized at Firecracker. Half-rounded and smoothed potsherds were probably used as shaping and smoothing tools. Round disks of pottery probably served as platforms or "dishes" upon which pots were built; the round bottom of the sherd helped shape the bottom of the new pot and it allowed the potter to rotate the pot as she worked on it. (She? Numerous ethnohistoric and ethnographic accounts in the Southwest show that pottery was ordinarily made by women.) Small smooth pebbles were probably used as polishing stones after the "green" pot was mostly dried, but before it was fired. A large sherd with a rounded notch was probably used as a rim "template" to help the potter shape and smooth the rim of flared-mouthed jars.

The most interesting find of pottery-making tools was in one of the pithouses, Room 26. In one area of the floor of this room was a concentration that must have been left by a potter. An unfinished and unfired clay bowl shows work in progress. Several sherds form a paint palette where the paint was mixed and held to decorate El Paso Polychrome. We know this because some of the bright yellow limonite (iron oxide) was still there. There were also polishing pebbles in this cluster of things.

Adding up this evidence, it appears that pottery making was a common activity at Firecracker Pueblo as it probably was at most Jornada Mogollon residential sites. Pottery was needed for storing drinking water, storing food, cooking, and food serving, among other uses.


Drawings of reconstructed El Paso Polychrome vessels found at Firecracker Pueblo.
Drawings of reconstructed El Paso Polychrome vessels found at Firecracker Pueblo.
Restorable El Paso Polychrome bowl from Room 25 with several of its rim sherds and a partial gourd-shaped ladle from same room.
Restorable El Paso Polychrome bowl from Room 25 with several of its rim sherds and a partial gourd-shaped ladle from same room.

Unfired potter's clay from one of the pithouses was matched to a clay bed not far from the pueblo, suggesting that El Paso Polychrome was being made at Firecracker.

Paint palette and two polishing pebbles.
Paint palette and two polishing pebbles.
Pottery-making tools on the floor of Room 7, including a pottery jar rim template, a polishing pebble, and large sherd dish or palette.
Pottery-making tools on the floor of Room 7, including a pottery jar rim template, a polishing pebble, and large sherd dish or palette.