The Ongoing Traditions of Mexican Pottery.

The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City……..60B88C18-46B1-4952-9508-F8245692DF70…… the largest and most visited museum in Mexico and one of the world’s most valuable resources of Pre-Columbian art. Its vast collection of Pre-Hispanic treasures is unequaled aesthetically and is an invaluable cultural legacy not only to Mexico but to the world in helping to clarify the importance of the past in understanding the present in order to proceed into the future. The Museum’s great strength in achieving this is by its embracing of the anthropological with the archaeological and relating it directly with the ethnographic.

As a professional potter, this was never more evident to Brunyfire than in the ceramics within this collection – one day spent here back in January 2018 was not nearly enough. Each of the halls on the ground floor depict rich displays of material in chronological order that clearly delineates the progression of MesoAmerican civilisation. The upstairs rooms are dedicated to ethnographic exhibits about present-day indigenous groups in Mexico. The relevance of the past is clearly evident in the lives of these groups today in the crafts that are still being produced.

The works downstairs illustrate how once the ancient Mayans had settled across the Yucatan Peninsula within their agricultural villages during the first millennium BC, they began to construct monumental buildings, they made sculpures in various media, and created durable clay containers.

‘Ceramic vessels nourished in both life and death: they held food and drink for daily life, but also offerings in dedicatory caches and burials, which range from the simplest graves to the richest royal tombs.’ (1)2D83715E-E904-49B4-9B71-CE28BA298ACFSuch as this beautifully uniform walled vessel containing the skeleton of a child – a reflection of the womb from which it would have originally emerged. Pottery at its most poignant.

Equally refined and of particular interest to Brunyfire for their purely aesthetic qualities, were the numerous sophisticated tripod vessels (used during feasts and ritual ceremonies) in burnished and slip decorated earthenware, all of which dated to around the first century AD. 41597F64-7B0E-4393-985C-2A8AB0FE0B8BA7995D8E-EC96-4ECD-993D-9C350641C9B887BA2D35-1E53-47B3-BA1E-544F4407A420The appearance of large bulbous feet on a number of pieces was intriguing and it wasn’t until later research revealed that these feet were hollow (some of which had small slits – clearly evident in the middle image above) and most likely contained small clay beads inside – apparently known as rattle feet, as, according to Doyle (2) ‘these pellets would have made noise with the movement of the vessel, transforming serving vessels into sonorous instruments at feasts or other rituals.’BF79C751-23F4-4817-B529-B28591131461Other ceramic exhibits of particular interest included finely produced vases and drinking vessels, again most likely for celebratory and ceremonial purposes that featured a variety of carved, sgraffito or burnished engobes. These wares are reflective of an important social distinction that defined the classes. Whilst the above illustrate fine workmanship and decorative detail intended to celebrate the ritualistic association with food, whether it be for celebrations or sacrificial ceremonies or impressing visiting royalty, they also distinguish between high (the rich, priests, royalty) and the humble (the peasant, worker, slave) classes.

The ‘high’ and the ‘humble’ are culinary expressions coined by Rachel Lauren in her book ‘Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History’. She also states that ‘cuisine was memorialised, not in written literature, but in proverbs and folk songs’. (3) For Brunyfire, this is just part of the story for she believes that it is the pots of the humble that tell equally powerful stories.

Historically, the refined wares of the high table are the ones usually destined for the museums, private collections and books or to be reproduced for the tourist market. (4) However, it is the kitchen ware of the humble that this writer believes have made as much of a contribution to contemporary times as have the elite ware.

To be fair, the National Museum of Anthropology had numerous working clay cooking pots of the humble classes, but little information about them. Fortunately, many of these pots are still being made today, particularly in the state of Oaxaca.

A classic example was this ‘shoe’ pot………..75A7B91C-3830-4F01-B6CB-3CED4C5E5800…….circa 1000, or Middle Pre-Classic, of Mixtec (5) or Zapotec (6) origin. This early version of the ‘shoe’ pot had molded additions either side and and on it’s ‘front’ which could be read as abstract bird like references (there was never enough explicit signage for the pieces Brunyfire was interested in). (7) But if we are to interpret the true nature of the ‘shoe-pot’ then it’s best to refer to Eric Mindling’s book ‘Fire and Clay: The Art of Oaxacan Pottery’ in which he shows several versions from various regions around Oaxaca.CDD0F013-B82F-47AE-A5F7-4721DD0E7FB50E5FF927-8CF8-4D01-937D-21E8C193182EHere Mindling refers to the ‘patojo’ (shoe-pot) as performing the specific task of acting as a (one of a three footed) prop to balance a comal upon over an open fire. CF79F2D5-988E-47FC-AE56-A6AF6AF9D6ABPrimarily, the bulbous front part of the pot is pushed into the hot coals and has the comal (flat clay disc for cooking tortillas on)………95536193-E488-4F5C-8CC4-244B2E6BA08F……..perch on its toe.  (Above image shot outside Oaxaca City market – 2018). The pot Brunyfire purchased from Los Reyes, Metzontla, Puebla from Oaxaca earlier in the year goes (scuse the pun) several steps further…….5C3B510A-A565-4A5C-BAE2-1FB57EFA8164…… that the wide open mouth can allow stirring of the contents cooking inside, usually beans, simultaneously as the tortillas cook above – the handle at the far end of the pot allows the cook to hold and/or adjust the pot’s position without getting burned, and the lip at the side of the mouth allows contents (this time it could be coffee) ease of pouring. An ingenious pot.

The comal……….18BF096F-805E-4658-82EC-1D2C441A6F17……….seen here resting on three ‘fire dogs’ is as much in use now as this piece would have been several hundred years ago. (According to Mindling (8) the first comals came from a site called Colonia las Bugambilias, northwest of Oaxaca City 2,700 years ago, coinciding with the evolution of the Tortilla.

Tortillas, the main stay of Mexican cuisine, are cooked on the comal. The comal is also used for roasting pumpkin seeds, chiles, tomatoes or frying an egg. Like all working pots, the comal is made and fired slightly differently from region to region in and around Oaxaca particularly. The one above was purchased from Francisca (See her story). Made from a fairly heavily grogged body, comals can vary in diameter but are all fairly thin to transfer the cooking heat more immediately, but with thickened rims for strength. The underside of the comal is left rough…….6792C0DB-F9BB-4F72-A98B-69B979558B8A……to ‘catch the fire’ and spread it uniformly across the underside of the comal. Getting the comal to a uniform thickness was uniquely demonstrated by Francisca……….3471CE50-085E-4133-96B3-76FDC30524A1……..the inside of her comals are finished off smoothly, but not not burnished.  The slight coarseness of the interior finish enables the wash of calcium oxide (baked limestone mixed with water) that is painted onto the fired piece prior to cooking to adhere better. All comals are washed with this solution to create a non-stick cooking surface for the soft tortilla dough but it’s residue becomes an ingredient of the cooked food, thus providing a valuable source of calcium for bones and teeth.

The museum also has extensive ethnographic exhibits about Mexico’s present-day indigenous groups. The ongoing ethnic diversity and rich cultural legacy of the archaeological exhibits is reflected in this piece by Miguel Ángel Gutiérrez entitled simply ‘Tree’ expresses the importance of the ongoing craft traditions in Mexico. 59E20ED6-A473-4E14-8B8C-850B2CECCA52

Footnotes:                                                                                                                                       1 and 2.  Online article by James Doyle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in April 2017 ‘Ancient Maya Painted Ceramics’.

3. Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History’ RL – chapter 1 ‘Mastering Grain Cookery 20,000 – 300 BCE –

4. Reproduction of ancient ceramics into a contemporary climate is not necessarily a bad thing, and there are many examples of cultures around the world who are successfully managing to sustain many of their cultural practices through traditional pot making but with a contemporary slant. Such as the paddle and anvil technique of the Vicus culture of Chulucanas, Piura in northern Peru whose potters still use the paddle and anvil technique to produce the internationally recognised black and white ware.

5. Mixtec – member of an American Indian people of southern Mexico, noted for their skill in pottery and metallurgy.

6. Zapotec – member of an American Indian people living in and around Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

7. Keith A. Dixon wrote a piece in American Anthropologist, Vol. 65 No. 3, Part 1 (June 1963) pp. 593-619 entitled ‘The Interamerican Diffusion of a Cooking Technique: The Culinary Shoe-Pot’ that explored a group of pots from middle and South America that were grouped together and known as ‘shoe-shaped’ or ‘bird shaped’. His aim was to distinguish between the two in order to define more clearly the culinary nature of the ‘shoe-pot’.

8. Eric Mindling ‘Fire and Clay: The Art of Oaxacan Pottery’ (produced by Innovando la Tradición a.c. 2015) – p. 122

2 Responses to “The Ongoing Traditions of Mexican Pottery.”

  1. Thank you so much for the explanation of the comal and shoe pot! I am a ceramicist from Hawaii and recently traveled to Oaxaca and visited the workshop of Macrina Mateo Martinez of San Marco Tlapazola and so impressed with the work, and inspired by their process. I am really excited to go back and learn more about traditional Oaxacan pottery, and am anxiously awaiting the 2nd edition of Eric Mindling’s Fire and Clay to be reprinted in English!

  2. Hi Suzanne – glad to have been of help! Oaxaca’s pottery traditions are fantastic aren’t they and Eric Mindlings work both with potters and textile artists is helping keep these traditions alive.

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