American Indian Pottery and Glazing
September 21, 2009 7:23 PM   Subscribe

What did American Indians use to glaze and paint their pottery and clay sculptures? Recipes or good links to such would be awesome.

I'm very familiar with modern techniques...kiln firing, cones, glazes etc.

What I want to accomplish here is the ability to recreate some really old stuff using natural and local materials.

From the little bit that I've learned is that most things were low-temp and wood fired. There was more painting than glazing and that wood ash ground into slip was one painting medium. I'd like to learn MUCH more.

Thanks in advance!
posted by snsranch to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer:
posted by elsietheeel at 7:45 PM on September 21, 2009

The stuff I've seen doesn't look glazed, at least not with the kind of glossy glaze that ceramicists use these days. It looks more dyed or stained.
posted by alms at 8:25 PM on September 21, 2009

Best answer: Burnishing was a very common practice to "close" the body of the clay. Decorations were often some form of iron oxide, and different surfaces could be gained by firing clays from different sources in either oxygen-rich or oxygen starved atmospheres. What I think is interesting is how similar some very early Native American pots look to very early pots from other places.
posted by Red Loop at 3:17 AM on September 22, 2009

Best answer: The South Dakota School of Mines used to have a renowned pottery that used both contemporary and indigenous techniques. Can't find the pottery/art ceramics on their website, but you might try contacting them, or a local museum for resources.
posted by nax at 5:04 AM on September 22, 2009

This is a pretty broad question, and not all pre-columbian American cultures did the same thing. However, many did not glaze at all or they used slips. As mentioned upthread, burnishing is another technique that was used.
posted by anansi at 5:44 AM on September 22, 2009

Best answer: Note well: This is not my forte, although I am a bit of a ceramic historian, and I can give you a few pointers, but don't take me as the end all be all, I'm gonna concentrate on the Southeastern US and the Southwestern US, simply because that's what I've studied and I feel most comfortable delving into.

A quick and dirty history lesson: pottery among the Native Americans stared in the southeastern part of what is now the US. Some of the oldest pottery in North America has been found along the Savannah River in Georgia and South Carolina. This pottery is generally plain with the only decoration being paddled or rolled textures. This pottery is a local terra cotta form of ceramics, usually wood fired in the pit method. As pottery spread throughout the US, and primarily in the Mississippian period decoration began to get more elaborate, with iron slips being created from grinding of iron ore rich rocks being ground up in mortals and pestles and designs being painted on the outside of the pots. The artisans used very similar methods to what the Greeks did, usually the rocks were ground as they were found. There is very little evidence that ashes were added to the mix, as this technique was not discovered until many years later by Chinese potters in the 17th century. However anecdotal evidence exists that blood was added to the slip (whether or not the artisans knew of the iron in blood are still up for debate). Another form of decoration was burnishing, or the act of sealing up the surface of the clay with a smooth stone. In the Southwest this developed into the black on black ware, and in the Southeast, this developed into a "calico cat" like pattern. The main thrust of burnishing is that while requiring very little skill at the application, it requires great skill in the actual firing, as the colors will only appear if the firing takes place in a oxygen poor atmosphere (known as reduction) causing the iron in the clay to migrate to the surface of the pot (a method still employed by ceramicists today).

Now for in you own studio: For simplicity's sake I'm going to concentrate on how you can quickly do this at home is a low fire pit kiln. First your clay: for black on black ware you want a very high iron, low grog terra cotta. Most places will sell this as a throwing terra cotta, since potters prefer not to tear their hand up when throwing. For the calico ware you want a medium iron, high grog clay. For your slip, and this will sound like I'm cheating here, but you really want to go find natural iron oxide, and grind it up. Go to a creek or gulley and find the reddest most crumbly stones you can. That's what the old artisans used and there were entire trade routes to transport them across the continent. Alternately you can make your own oxide rocks by making a wet mud pie of your clay and throw in 5-6% iron oxide. Black or red will work fine, but red is cheaper. Let the mud pie dry out completely, then grind it in a pestle with vinegar until it's smooth like a melted milkshake, then let it settle for a day or two. Now suck out the middle layer of fine silt and iron, you've just made a terra sigillata. Now do your pot up.

Now on to the pit: You want to dig a pit about three feet deep with sides that slope more like a punchbowl than a soup tureen. Cover the floor of the pit with sawdust and hay. Now place your pots into the pit, leaving channels along the side to draw air into the bottom of the pit. Pack more sawdust and hay around the pots, except where the air channels are and a pit about 2' in diameter in the center. Fill the pit to about one foot below ground level with pots, sawdust and hay. Cover everything but your center hole and the ends of the air channels with the ground you've removed from the pit. Now fire it from the center hole, until the sawdust and hay have burned out of all the pit and all the pots you can see are glowing a deep cherry red. Now fill in the center hole, and the air channels with the loose dirt from the hole. In three days time, dig up you pots and see how you did.

Again, this is a general guide to how this sort of thing was/is done, and there's a lot of small technical details I left out that you can find in excellent books such as Olsen's Kiln Book and at websites like Claystation. Always feel free to contact any artisans whose work you like, we're generally a pretty friendly bunch and happy to share techniques, as I hope to have proven here...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:06 AM on September 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am going to have to nitpick what 1f2frfbf said very slightly. Ash glazes were in use by Chinese potter well before the 17th century (if anything at that point ash was passe there) going back to at least the Eastern Han dynasty.

For Amerind pottery I think one of the best modern examples are the works of Maria Martinez. She worked with high iron clay coil built earthenware that was pit fired with some sort of crazy reduction process. The end result is a glossy black finish that is deep and rich, and impossible to replicate for some reason. I have a degree in ceramics (I focused mainly on Bizen and Shigaraki styles, but dabbled rather heavily in Chinese shapes as well), and my whole dept in college tried for months to replicate the Maria Martinez stuff and it didnt work.

Generally Amerind stuff is going to be earthenware with slips, one thing I have seen is to build your bowl inside a basket and then throw the whole thing in the kiln, the basket will burn off but also create a simple glaze pattern.

Good luck.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:38 AM on September 22, 2009

Best answer: BobbyDigital is correct. I must have been thinking when it was introduced to Europe from China and somehow got it all mixed up in my brain, too many years in front of a salt kiln, I guess.

Martinez' work is fired in a process far more similar to raku than a traditional pit fire. It is insanely cool and difficult to master, but you can get similar results if you burnish a high-iron earthenware piece and after firing, reduce it raku style. The trick is not to go heat the pot above the point at which the burnishing disappears (cone 09-010, I think?). A good slip to try for this is Super Slip (pdf, page four) with 10-12% iron oxide. It takes burnishing very well and is super forgiving.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:45 AM on September 22, 2009

Response by poster: Wow, I'm almost speechless. You guys are great and have really nailed this down for me. I can't thank you enough! This is much more interesting and DIY friendly than I anticipated...I'm going to have a blast!

Many thanks!
posted by snsranch at 4:42 PM on September 22, 2009

Response by poster: I just finished burnishing a couple of test fire pinch pots...Wow. I haven't fire them yet, but with a little drying and lots of rubbing they look like they have a really sweet calico glaze. Very great stuff, and thanks again!
posted by snsranch at 9:35 PM on September 24, 2009

« Older Help me learn about the clothing consignment...   |   Pick one: Disqus vs IntenseDebate Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.