Pottery in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Pottery in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica
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I had my high school students do this project. They loved it and created some wonderful pieces. This is for students who have already had experience throwing on the wheel. Below are the notes.

Criteria for Mesoamerican Reproduction Project
• Craftsmanship and attention to detail/Neatness
• Completion on time
• Quality of reproduction: duplicate size, color, patterns, etc. as much as possible
• Degree of difficulty: the higher the degree, the higher the grade
• Effort
• Learn terms

True civilizations of pre-Columbian America were in Mesoamerica – valley of Mexico south to Honduras and parts of Nicaragua and in the region of the central Andes.

Style – “predominately linear, expressive, and descriptive, based in naturalism and using overlapping forms in densely packed compositions.”1
“They use people, animals, objects, and parts of each, in composite and hopelessly interlocked ways. It is a “coloring book” style. Naturalistic-looking and abstract objects are usually painted with dark visible outlines, and filled in with solid colors. Lines are consistently thin with the same thickness throughout a composition.”2

Themes – they have thousands of concepts and themes, most controlled chaos: life/death, face/skull, two-headed person or a head with 3 eyes representing either shamans or actual deformities or skull/idiot, bisexual, dual divinity, reality/illusion, double-vision or transformation, human/animal (esp. jaguar/serpent, jaguar/bird, were-jaguars: combination men/cat, etc.), sacrifice, religion, warriors.

Pre-classic: figurine sculpture/ceramics – slanted eyes, rounded legs, stocky, small, elaborate head dresses, very stylistic and elegant in shape, very creative. Small figurines were solid/large figurines were hollow and open at one end. Only the white-surfaced, infantile-featured figures associated with the Olmec were naturalistic, modeled in asymmetrical postures with curvaceous outlines. Figurines were buried in tombs to protect and serve the people whose bodies were placed there – belief in afterlife.

Classic – severe geometric forms. Sculpture is broad and blocklike, yet expressive subtleties. Mural paintings, pottery, architecture, sculpture, jade mosaics. Ball game portrayed often. Introduction of polychrome pottery (Mixtec). Nazcas had brilliant polychrome ceramics, painted before clay was fired to increase brightness and seal color under a burnished surface that looked glazed (no pre-Columbian potters used true glaze).

Gods: (hundreds of them, same gods/different names in each culture)
• Quetzalcoatl – (Mayan), Feathered Serpent, Coatepec – (Aztec) – god of learning, hope and healing, also god of the wind
• Coatlicue – “Our Lady of the Serpent Skirt” aka “mother of gods and men” represented death, power and birth (Aztec)
• Tlaloc – Rain God/god of water – symbolized by double-headed serpent
Colors: red & black – writing and wisdom/night and day

1Charles Gallenkamp and Regina E. Johnson, general editors. Maya Treasures of an Ancient Civilization. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985. p. 65
2Fuerst, Ann H., PhD., Maya Art, Classroom and Museum Activity Book. San Diego Museum of Man.
Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs.
Leon-Portilla, Miguel. Aztec Thought and Culture
Coe, Michael D. Mexico
Groiler Electronic Publishing, Inc. 1995


• Mesoamerica – ancient cultures of Mexico, Central Mexico and the Andean Region along with the Maya civilization

• Pre-Columbian – before Christopher Columbus arrived in Mexico in 1519

• Pyramid – a structure with a square base and triangular sides. Americas – flat topped, Egypt – pointed top

• Sculpture – a work of art that is meant to be viewed from all sides; a work of art that is three dimensional.

• Linear – relating to or consisting of a line

• Naturalism – realism in art tht emphasizes photographic exactness in portraying what actually exists

• Asymmetrical – not symmetrical, that is correspondence in size, shape and position of parts that are on opposite sides of a dividing line or center

• Polychrome – multiple color

• GT - the Great Temple (Teocalli) of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City
• NMAH - National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City
• LA - L.A. County Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles
• T - Teotihuacan, Mexico State, Mexico
• U - Uxmal, Yucatán
• CI - Chichén Itzá, Yucatán
• TULA - Tula, Hidalgo
• TU - Tulum, Quintana Roo
• TL - Tlatelolco, Mexico City
• CU - Cuicuilco, Mexico City
• PS - Piño Suarez, Mexico City

References and other Mesoamerican Sites

Mesoamerican Art:

Pre-columbian Art

Mesoamerican Reproductions:

Maya Ceramics:

Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute:


Archaeological Sites (in Spanish)

WebQuest about Mesoamerica:

Native Arts of the Americas:

A whole list of other sites:

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