Ancient Aztec Pottery

The Mexica people and other peoples in the empire made some great pottery.  Ancient Aztec pottery is still admired today.  Pottery from the Aztec empire, or copies of it, have been found as far away as central Guatemala, so we know it had a wide influence.

Aztec pottery patterns
Typical Aztec geometric patterns


We know a lot about ancient Aztec pottery because of a curious tradition that was followed - at the end of every 52 year cycle, all household goods were destroyed.  So archaeologists are able to understand changes in pottery with much greater accuracy.

Black-on-orange and polychrome

If you lived in Mexico during the height of the empire, you would be familiar with a style of pottery that is today called black-on-orange.  Many designs were used over Aztec history, but often designs used black and white, red and orange colours.

There was a unity of culture in central Mexico, and there were several production facilities that created the pottery in various regions (see The Aztecs by Michael Ernest Smith).  Smith writes:
In the Late Aztec period, a single style of painted ceramic, called Aztec III Black-on-Orange, came to dominate the inventories of households in the Valley of Mexico.  The painted designs on these ceramics are simple and busy, with many thin parallel lines combined with other motifs...Aztec III ceramics show a high degree of stylistic uniformity throughout the Valley of Mexico and in the foreign areas to which they were traded.

polychrome pottery
Each production facility would use its own local materials, making the pottery somewhat unique.  Styles came and went.  Often a white background was used, with red, black and orange designs.

Cholula became famous for its elaborate pottery, and it was said that Moctezuma II demanded to eat only off of Cholula dinnerware!  Bernal Díaz del Castillo tells us that it was all red or black.

Ancient Aztec pottery is often known for its geometric shapes.  Often these were intricately drawn, with repeating patterns.  But as time went on, artisans began to use more naturalistic patterns - figures of animals were used, such as the marine figures on this bowl:
Example of ancient Aztec pottery

Of course, ancient Aztec pottery really had all kinds of uses, beyond simple household items.  There were clay earrings, masks (although masks were usually made out of other materials), and sculptures.  Pottery adorned temples to the gods.

Summary

Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes regarding ancient Aztec pottery:  Much of their later pottery utilizes an orange-burning clay that was painted with black curvilinear geometric motifs, in contrast to their earlier rectilinear style.  During the period of Montezuma I in the 15th century, designs became more naturalistic, and birds, fish, and plant forms were freely utilized.

Aztec patterns were often rigid, but as time went by they became more naturalistic.  It's hard to say how the designs would have progressed if the Europeans hadn't arrived.  After that, the art took a very different course.

Find out about other kinds of Aztec art!

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