Red Trunk Project

sample Oaxaca trunk

ethnography: POTTERY

Black pot from San Bartolo CoyotepecThis black pot from San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca, is incised with designs. The artisan made the basic water pot (see below), called an olla in Spanish, and before it was completely dry, cut out these designs with a sharp tool. While this isn’t an object that most homes in the Valley of Oaxaca would use, cutting in these designs was an ingenious way for artisans to adapt their traditional pots into a decorative piece to sell to visitors and tourists. These changes in traditional production, while keeping the ancient forms, represents the potters’ mastery of the forms, desire to retain traditions, while also earning a betting living through selling traditional crafts.

Ceramics are one of the most important crafts throughout Mexico, especially in Oaxaca. Clay pots dating from thousands of years ago have been found in archaeological zones throughout the state. Archaeologists have learned through chemical analysis of clay that some pots made today are from the same clay sources (called “clay banks”) as those made and buried in graves in ancient times, long before Spaniards came to Mexico in 1518.  The phenomenon that many of the same objects have been found in villages today that were used a thousand years ago is called “cultural continuity.” From these forms, we can infer that many of the same techniques have been used in making ceramics. When archaeologists have found remains of organic materials, such as foods in ancient ceramics, we learn that the same plants have been grown in this area for centuries, if not millennia.

Green potsThese large green cazuelas, and ollas — small to huge cooking pots — are made in the village of Atzompa near the famous archaeological ceremonial site of Monte Alban. What is particularly interesting about these Atzompa ollas is that similar shapes have been found at Monte Alban but NOT green. Why? The green glaze, as all glazes, were introduced in Oaxaca by the Spanish who came in the 16th century. Adding a glaze to a clay pot requires a much hotter fire in the kiln as well as the technology to make the glaze itself, a mixture of different chemical elements which when heated make a glass-like coating. Without changing the shapes or the ways the pots were made, Spanish taught indigenous potters how to use glazes, such as those used at that time in Spain, and here they are, hundreds of years later.

Black ceramic ollas of San Bartolo CoyotepecThe black ceramic ollas of San Bartolo Coyotepec are known throughout Mexico. The olla with holes is a coladera, a strainer, used to separate corn kernels from the water it is boiled in. Strained corn, called nixtamal is ground (on a metate or by a mechanical mill) into masa (dough) from which tortillas are made.

The round black jarros are for keeping fresh water in the house. What would you do if you didn’t have running water in your kitchen? You would go to the well (or to the local public faucet) to fill your pot with water. Today, filling water jugs in a home is often a chore for children. Luckily, today, water is usually carried in plastic containers and then, poured into the ceramic olla.

Another interesting thing about Coyotepec's black pottery is that the clay isn’t black! The ceramics turn black during the firing process when the air (oxygen) in the kiln (oven) is reduced and the clay turns black.

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Black pot from San Bartolo Coyotepec

Green potsThese large green cazuelas, and ollas — small to huge cooking pots — are made in the village of Atzompa near the famous archaeological ceremonial site of Monte Alban. What is particularly interesting about these Atzompa ollas is that similar shapes have been found at Monte Alban but NOT green. Why? The green glaze, as all glazes, were introduced in Oaxaca by the Spanish who came in the 16th century. Adding a glaze to a clay pot requires a much hotter fire in the kiln as well as the technology to make the glaze itself, a mixture of different chemical elements which when heated make a glass-like coating. Without changing the shapes or the ways the pots were made, Spanish taught indigenous potters how to use glazes, such as those used at that time in Spain, and here they are, hundreds of years later.

Black ceramic ollas of San Bartolo CoyotepecThe black ceramic ollas of San Bartolo Coyotepec are known throughout Mexico. The olla with holes is a coladera, a strainer, used to separate corn kernels from the water it is boiled in. Strained corn, called nixtamal is ground (on a metate or by a mechanical mill) into masa (dough) from which tortillas are made.

Red Trunk Project

Black pot from San Bartolo Coyotepec

Black pot from San Bartolo Coyotepec

Green pots

Black ceramic ollas of San Bartolo Coyotepec

Red Trunk Project

Black pot from San Bartolo Coyotepec

Green pots

Black ceramic ollas of San Bartolo Coyotepec

Red Trunk Project

Black pot from San Bartolo Coyotepec

Green pots

Black ceramic ollas of San Bartolo Coyotepec

Red Trunk Project®

Red Trunk Project

Black pot from San Bartolo Coyotepec

Green pots

Black ceramic ollas of San Bartolo Coyotepec