If you live in the United States and you've run across an elegant red or white ceramic vessel covered in angular black geometric patterns, you've probably encountered the beautiful and distinct aesthetic of Pueblo pottery. It’s a recognizable regional style in a consumable format that’s allowed it to proliferate around the world. But far from the souvenir of your well-traveled aunt, Pueblo pottery is an ancient tradition, developed by the nomadic people-turned city-builders that developed this sophisticated craft then left ghost towns in cliffs and canyons throughout the North American southwest. Let’s get into it.
From roughly 8000 to 1500 BCE the ancestral puebloan cultures were nomadic hunter gatherers. According to archeological sites on the Colorado Plateau, the ancient puebloans began cultivating maize and squash between 1000 and 2000 BCE, and by 500 BCE maize was a major source of food. For several hundred years the new focus on agriculture didn't force the puebloans into a more settled lifestyle. Crops were planted, then the nomadic groups followed game and wild foods as usual, until returning for the harvest. Around CE 50, the ancient pueblo peoples finally began to abandon the nomadic life, building circular pit houses around a central fire—cozy!—or constructing shelters within the protection of overhanging cliffs.
In 1927, the archeologist Alfred Vincent Kidder held a conference in Pecos New Mexico with the aim of creating a classification system to describe the history of the ancestral puebloans. The ‘Pecos Classification’ has evolved since its origin nearly 100 years ago, but its critical distinction was between two periods—the early Basketmaker Eras, named after the distinctive “two rod and bundle” style of basket weaving that became popular around 1 CE. (These vessels were constructed of thin twigs and yucca fibers that were coiled into a spiral dish and laced together with yucca leaves—beautiful and surprisingly durable). The second period began around 750 CE, with a huge population boom and the development of complex civic and agricultural systems, and that’s where this story really begins.
Pueblo I: It was the rain that brought prosperity. Beginning around 700 CE, and lasting for just over 400 years, regular, dependable rainfall in the otherwise arid American southwest led to a massive cultural shift. More agriculture led to more trade, reliable nutrition to higher birth rates. A population explosion was augmented by civic developments in the Dolores River Valley and Mesa Verde (southwest Colorado) and Chaco Canyon (northwest New Mexico) that drew distant neighbors together into growing communities. These new communities developed above-ground structures called pueblos, made from vertically stacked wood poles covered in clay and grass, and used for living and storage. The pit houses of the previous generations became communal, often ceremonial spaces.
At Mesa Verde, the cultural hub of the era, urbanization went hand in hand with increased agriculture and trade, and regular settlements popped up, usually in groups of three, each triad claiming 15-30 miles of territory. Organization and stability led to expansion, and settlements grew from 1-3 households to upwards to 200 hundred people each. Climate shifts through the 800s prompted the construction of huge reservoirs, and triggered the emigration of experienced builders and craftspeople to from Mesa Verde to Chaco Canyon.
One of the defining aesthetics of Pueblo cultures from ancient times through to today emerged during this period—geometric black on white pottery. Communities with agricultural surplus traded their extra maize for goods, and trade led to marketing. Ceramic vessels that for centuries were gray, utilitarian objects, began to be crafted from rare white clay and painted with black geometric designs, an energetic motif you can still find everywhere on pottery and design in the American Southwest.
Pueblo II: Everything kept getting bigger and better. By 1000 CE, many buildings were made out of stone, increasing in size and relative luxury. The old communal pit houses evolved into round stone ceremonial rooms called kivas, then expanded into Great Kivas, more than 50 feet in diameter.
With the influx of immigrants Mesa Verde, the settlement at Chaco Canyon had grown from a robust village to a powerful civic center. Around 850 construction began on the monumental Pueblo Bonito, a massive suite of hundreds of conjoined rooms, living spaces, and kivas, with developments in double-coursed masonry facilitating multi-story great-houses. The Pueblo Bonito is believed to have been home to an elite matrilineal clan specializing in turquoise mining, and was connected to outlying settlements via miles of smooth 30ft wide roads cut directly into the bedrock.
But rain became irregular, and the growing population centers needed food to maintain their size and stability. To extract every ounce of maize from the region, a constellation of more than 10,000 farming sites expanded out from the main settlements, filling the Four Corners, the region where the borders of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet today. Every plot of land that could support growth (and didn't flood) was cultivated. In Mesa Verde the farmers moved their crops to terraces, as their larger fields dried up, and in Chaco Canyon the lowering water table led to arroyo cutting, a devastating geologic condition where rainwater is unable to penetrate the ground and runs into steep channels, leaving behind drylands unsuitable for farming.
Pueblo III: In 1130, a 50 year drought struck the pueblo region. Without rain, there was no farming. The Four Corners settlements were abandoned, and Chaco Canyon was almost entirely depopulated within a few decades. People moved to the few communities that could withstand the drought, often at canyon heads like Sand Canyon and Goodman Point, or the cliff dwelling communities at Mesa Verde and Keet Seel. The new population density in these areas strained the infrastructure, prompted innovation, and in some places, triggered war.
Mesa Verde survived the brutal drought better than most settlements, likely due to their adaptive farming practices developed in the late days of the Pueblo I period. During Pueblo III, Mesa Verdean villages expanded with multi-story developments that lasted up to two hundred years each, their pottery decoration became more elaborate, and their population and economy grew steadily, reaching 22,000 people by 1200 CE. Prosperity in a climate of scarcity can be dangerous. From 1150 to 1300, a series of stone towers connected by secret tunnels were constructed in Mesa Verde, and nearby archeology has revealed burned villages, battle wounded remains, and at least one seeming massacre.
The end of Pueblo culture arrived in 1250. The drought of 1130 was just a prelude, and 120 years later the already delicate climate collapsed region-wide. Lack of rain killed off the maize that the entire region depended on, and while previous migrations had ebbed and flowed between settlements, by 1260 the population was starving and fleeing en masse. The exodus was so swift that Mesa Verde was left fully stocked with cookware, tools, and clothing. While their towers defended against intruders, in those last years violence erupted in and between the Mesa Verde villages, and by 1300 the Four Corners was empty. Ghost towns and empty cliff homes left open to the wind.
We don't have clear evidence for how many ancestral Puebloans survived that final drought, or where exactly they went, but we do know that the black-on-white pottery, in its severe geometric beauty, reappeared in archeological sites near the Rio Chama river, the Pajarito Plateau, and eventually Santa Fe, where you can find it produced to this day.
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Reed Enger, "Pueblo Cultures, Ghost cities and geometric pottery," in Obelisk Art History, Published August 30, 2022; last modified November 08, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/middle-ages/pueblo-cultures/.