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Micaceous Gold

Micaceous pottery has long been known for its strength, durability and and as superior cookware. Some theorize that the Spanish conquistadors mistook this beautiful pottery for actual gold which fed the stories of treasure and 'cities of gold'. It is produced in forms ranging from cookware to fine art pieces in various quantities. Significant production of micaceous pottery occurs among the Taos, Picuris, San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildephonso, Pojoaque, Nambe, Tesuque, Jemez and Jicarilla Apache peoples. It has significantly grown in popularity as collectible art over the last several years.

We believe that micaceous pottery offers the greatest potential for increased popularity and collecting by those who appreciate Native American pottery. It's 'discovery' increases with every year. We are providing the following excerpts from Duane Anderson's book All That Glitters as an introduction to this beautiful genre of Southwestern Native American pottery.

"Sparkling flecks of mica occur naturally in clay deposits in many parts of the world. In the northern Rio Grande region of New Mexico, the ancient roots of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains contain 63-million-year-old warped and twisted rocks that were pushed up by the earth’s forces at the end of the dinosaur age. Several of the minerals in these deposits -including the micas- weather to produce clay when they are exposed at the surface. Over the eons numerous deposits of clay, known as primary deposits, have developed in the mountains. In areas around Taos and Picuris Pueblos, many of these deposits contain significant amounts of mica; hence the clay is “micaceous .” There are also secondary deposits of clay, made up of clay particles that have been transported, usually by water, from a source in the nearby mountains. Both primary and secondary sources were used by Indians in the northern Rio Grande region as far back as AD 1300.

When micaceous pottery first appears in the archaeological record among the northern Rio Grande pueblos, it is only one of several varieties of pottery in use, including polychrome, black-on-white, and polished blackwares and rcdwares made of nonmicaceous clays. By AD 1500 various groups of Apaches were moving into the area from the high plains to the east. One ancestral Apache group, the Dismal River culture of eastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska, and western Kansas, made micaceous pottery, along with other types, but it appears to have been tempered with mica rather than made from mica-rich clay. Tempering was done by grinding up rocks containing mica and mixing the material into nonmicaceous clay. One group of Apaches, the Jicarillas, eventually settled near Taos Pueblo. Over time they shared many ceramic traits with the people of Taos; by the mid-1800s, their wares were almost indistinguishable.

The Spanish entrada in 1540 marked the beginning of a new era for the Native peoples of the Southwest. Indian villages across what is now Arizona and New Mexico were ravaged, exploited, and even destroyed, their inhabitants removed, enslaved, and killed in the name of God and the King of Spain. Given the intense pressure over almost five centuries of Spanish and United States domination, it is a wonder that significant portions of Native languages, religions, and cultures have endured into the present. But the very fact of Indian survival has given rise to some serious misconceptions. I have watched tourists at the Santa Fe Indian Market gazing in awe at pottery from Acoma Pueblo displayed in plastic wrap and marveling at the continuity of culture from ancient times. What they don’t realize is that many precontact traditions died out completely, others changed radically, and still others were created, some rather recently.

A primary cause of the decline in the arts among the pueblo villages in the nineteenth century was the influx of manufactured goods from the eastern United States after the Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821. Metal pots and pans began to replace traditional Pueblo pottery wares. To some extent the Pueblo people themselves started using the imported items; more significantly, the Hispanic peoples for whom the Pueblos had supplied pottery from as early as 1600 increased their use of manufactured wares. This loss of trade had a profound negative effect on both the quantity and the quality of pottery wares produced in the pueblos.

Given the many changes that have taken place in Pueblo pottery in the last 150 years, it is remarkable that one tradition remained relatively free of outside influences. At the pueblos of Taos, Picuris, Nambe, Tesuque, Santa Clara, Pojoaque, and San Juan, certain culinary wares made of mica-rich clay were produced along with painted and black ware types. Neither the tourists nor the Indians themselves seem to have regarded these micaceous wares, which included sparsely decorated jars, bowls, pitchers, and other utilitarian forms, as art. This does not imply that aesthetic values were unimportant to the Indians or that they were not expressed in micaceous wares; they most assuredly were. A few examples were collected by museums, but these were neither well documented nor given extensive coverage in publications.

James Stevenson collected seriously for the Smithsonian Institution in 1879 and 1880 and sent nearly three thousand pottery vessels back to Washington, but his lengthy catalog, published in 1883, listed only ten micaceous pieces from Tesuque and one each from Pojoaque and Santa Clara (he did not go to Taos and Picuris); only three micaceous pots were illustrated. Ruth Bunzel’s The Pueblo Potter does not even mention micaceous pottery. Presumably such pieces were regarded merely as cooking pots. Micaceous pots and other vessels were sold in curio shops as early as 1880 but were never afforded the same aesthetic value by scholars and tourists as the Pueblo painted wares. Center stage was occupied by the revived painted pottery styles, eventually joined by polished redwares and the celebrated blackwares of Santa Clara and San Ildefonso.

At Taos and Picuris, the two northernmost Pueblo villages, painted wares had died out long before anthropologists and traders began encouraging the revival of Indian arts and crafts at the beginning of the twentieth century, but micaceous wares were retained for their superior cooking and heating qualities. Traditional blackwares continued in use for serving and storing food until some time in the mid-nineteenth century, but by 1900 only micaceous pottery was actually being produced at these two pueblos. Micaceous cooking pots were so durable and so popular among the northern Pueblos and their Hispanic neighbors that they were used alongside the metal pots and pans coming in by way of the Santa Fe Trail, and later on the railroad.

The Jicarilla Apaches, mountain neighbors to the west of Taos and Picuris, also made micaceous pottery. Given the nomadic tendencies and relative isolation of the Jicarillas, it comes as no surprise that their pottery was neither collected nor encouraged by anthropologists as "art." Stevenson's 1883 catalog lists only twenty-three items, obtained through a third party, that were thought to be of Jicarilla Apache origin. Micaceous pottery has continued to be used among the Jicarillas; the craft went into serious decline in the 1970s, but is being revived by Feljpe Ortega and Lydia Pesata and her family.

Even today you can visit the homes of Taos, Picuris, and Jicarilla Apache families and find a pot of beans simmering on the wood or gas stove in a micaceous pot ("The beans taste better!" says Felipe Ortega). Teakettles, pitchers, cups, and other micaceous pieces are also used regularly, as they have been for more than two hundred years. If you bought a pot directly from a Taos Pueblo potter in the last twenty years or so, chances are you received instructions on how to use it on a wood fire or gas stove or in the oven. In the 1990s microwaving instructions are commonly provided as well.

I first visited Picuris Pueblo in 1963 with a group of Pecos Conference attendees on a field trip to Herbert W. Dick’s excavations in Old Picuris. Local pottcr Virginia Duran presented a micaceous pottery-making demonstration for our group and showed us how the sparkling slip was applied. I was impressed with the appearance of the pottery, but two dollars seemed a high price for a college student to pay. I returned to Picuris two years later and bought a medium-sized jar with a rope fillet design on the neck for five dollars. During the 1960s Herb Dick encouraged Duran and others to continue with their traditional crafts, but I am sure that back then no one thought of Duran’s pottery as being on a par with the prizewinning polychromes and polished blackwares and redwares that work being exhibited at the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Thirty years later, when I came back to live in the Southwest, I was amazed by the transformation micaceous pottery was undergoing. At the 1993 Santa Fe Indian Market I admired a large micaceous pot in Lonnie Vigil’s booth. I asked Lonnie, whom I had not met previously, what the price was, and was shocked by his reply- “Five thousand dollars or a pickup truck.” I had no idea a micaceous pot could be so beautiful or so expensive! I quickly learned that the micaceous potter tradition was changing rapidly. Pots were winning prizes as “art” at the Indian markets, they were being sold in galleries, and they were fetching increasingly handsome prices."

“The clay has taught me to be patient, to grow, to respect what is given to me and what I can give back…I am only a tool by which our Clay Mother shows her real inner beauty.” Sharon Dryflower Reyna, Taos Pueblo

All indented text by Duane Anderson is excerpt from his book All That Glitters: The Emergence of Native American Micaceous Art Pottery in Northern New Mexico.. Published by the School of American Research Press, Sante Fe, New Mexico. Copyright 1999 by the School of American Research. Photography by Addison Doty.

Excerpts reprinted with the generous permission of the author and our thanks.

All That Glitters: The Emergence of Native American Micaceous Art Pottery in Northern New Mexico  

All That Glitters: The Emergence of Native American Micaceous Art Pottery in Northern New Mexico

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