The University of Arizona

Aspects for the Care of Contemporary American Indian Pottery

Dr. Nancy Odegaard
Head of Preservation Division
Conservator and Professor

Pottery is a broad term referring to wares or vessels made from fired clays. Contemporary pottery types may also include utilitarian or decorative vessels, tiles, sculpture and dolls. Natural clays formed by long-term weathering of rocks are mixed with minerals to produce desired properties or visual effects. Most traditional American Indian clays are red and become ceramic after firing at a relatively low temperature (below 1650° F). A slip or thin layer of clay material applied to the surface may create a different surface color and texture. Less common in the Southwest is the use of glaze which is a glossy thin glass-like layer fired to the ceramic surface. In modern times, many artisans have begun to use new materials and techniques to create a range of different finishes, designs, or colors.

The low fired ceramics made by American Indian artisans tend to be porous and will absorb water easily. This makes them more sensitive to erosion and salt damage. Today they are less suitable for use as flower vases, serving bowls, and water jars even though these are traditional functions. Rather, it is best to display them as decorative art.

The main hazard to decorative ceramic vessels and items is poor handling. However durable a ceramic may appear, it should be considered fragile. Ceramics may have weak joins between the handles and body. Always use care when handling. Never lift a ceramic by the handle, knob, or rim. Pieces that have been mended or restored often become weak or fail completely as the adhesive ages. Always check the weight and balance before you lift an object. It is important to use both hands and support ceramic pieces from the base when lifting. Wear plastic gloves to avoid fingerprints on the surface or slippage during handling.

Routine cleaning presents risks. A soft brush may be used infrequently (one hand holds the brush and the other steadies the object). Brushes should not be used to scrub or agitate the surface with friction and care should be taken around painted, decorated, or damaged areas. Wet cleaning is not typically necessary and may cause irreversible damage. Pottery that is unevenly fired or simply baked will dissolve. Professional conservators may use water to clean but will take great care to test all surfaces, use purified water, and provide for even drying to avoid the development of unsightly tide lines or other surface deposits. Detergents and soaps are never recommended for American Indian pottery.

Closed display cabinets provide the best protection from dust, lint, insects and vibration. Use care to provide adequate space between pieces so that they do not touch each other and avoid stacking. Metal spring-type plate hangers should not be used as these are designed for high-fired porcelain or stoneware ceramics. The exaggerated stress of the spring may open and extend cracks or chip fragile edges. If a piece is cracked do not lean it to support its own weight.

The mending, stabilization, or restoration of valuable ceramics is generally not appropriate for amateurs. Conservators carefully select modern materials to best match the materials and technology of the object with the type of damage. Knowledge of the ceramic traditions, the chemistry of materials, and practiced dexterity enables conservators to execute successful treatments.