Colonial and contemporary pottery in Mexico

In all stages of man's culture, pottery is the inseparable companion. The permanence of ceramic objects and their resistance to destruction make them the most accurate testimonies of archaic cultures. Virtuosity has been achieved in the identification of the different types of ceramics in order to determine almost with mathematical precision, types, origins, horizons and other data to which the ceramic pieces of the past correspond, and through these studies many of the features of the cultures to which they belonged have been reconstructed.

Mexican pottery. Image: Publicdomainpictures.net
Mexican pottery. Image: Publicdomainpictures.net

In the field of hypothesis, pottery goes almost hand in hand with the appearance of man. Undoubtedly, the first observations of primitive man in his hunting activities were the identification of the footprints left by animals in the clay fields. Identifying those signs was vital for their feeding and safety. In the plasticity of the clay - that ability to deform itself - was imprinted in the imprint of the saber-toothed tiger, the mammoth, or other animals which had to be attacked or eluded; fire did the rest.

From the observation of the hardening of mud by the action of heat, first in the natural fires of the forests, and then when man was able to create fire at will and apply it to harden clays, pottery was born. Many of the seasonal nomadic peoples did not produce pottery because their constant walking did not allow them to carry fragile and relatively heavy objects.

Archaeologists and other experts in the field more or less agree that ceramic objects, which are proven and unquestionably old, date back to 5,000 years B.C., that is, they have already reached the venerable age of seven thousand years. However, and in view of the fact that the investigations are becoming more and more accurate, they are extending the antiquity of man on the planet by thousands of years, and consequently the possible age of ceramics, it is not wrong to set a possible age of 20,000 years.

To avoid misunderstandings, it is necessary to clarify that the word pottery, that is the art of making objects from clay, means exactly the same as ceramics, only that the former derives from the Arabic language and the latter from Greek; both voices can be used indistinctly as there is no denotation or connotation different from or hierarchy of one over the other.

Nowadays, some people, not very strict and less aware, use the word "ceramic" to refer to objects made with industrial pastes and try to limit pottery to objects made with brown or red clay. To their fine ears it sounds better ceramist than potter, the latter term being more plebeian and suggesting a popular craftsman, generally with a low income, and even in the curricula of educational institutions they only talk about ceramics and not about pottery. We will use the terms interchangeably.

By natural reason the oldest pottery is the one without glazes. The pieces can be polished or not, the polishing can be very incipient or reach an insurmountable degree of perfection. Also to be classified as unglazed are pieces that only have engobes - pastes based on contrasting coloured clays that are applied to the object before firing to give it a smooth, glazed surface -, also sgraffito pieces or those that are made using tablet techniques or other procedures, provided that, as already mentioned, they are unglazed.

In Asia and specifically in the Near East, the period of unglazed pottery covers approximately 18,000 years, that is, from 20,000 to 2,000 BC, when glazed pieces based on lead and silica salts appear, which is the easiest to make and handle and, consequently, the most common glaze. The period of these glazes extends from 2,000 B.C. in China, Japan and Korea, to 100 A.D., when high temperature ceramics appear and continue to this day.

As for Europe, the period of unglazed ceramics goes from 20,000 to 700 BC, when glazed pieces appear. The low temperature glazed ceramics extends until the middle of the XVIII century, a date in which the Europeans manage to elaborate for the first time pieces of high temperature.

As far as Mexico is concerned, the period of unglazed pottery is approximately 2000 years BC to 1521 AD. Then, from 1521 to 1960 glazed ceramics appeared; from this last date high temperature ceramics began, also called stoneware, stoneware, stainware and seki toki.

There was a time in the history of mankind when we could say that the way of making pottery was very similar everywhere, or in other words, the technological level of pottery was very homogeneous. In Asia, Europe and America, approximately in the year 2,000 B.C., pottery was made without a glass layer, which reached a degree of perfection and refinement like that of the ancient Greeks, where polishing and painting, with engobe, reached the sublime. Later in America, in this same type of pottery, beautiful engobes, remarkable sgraffito and tablets of great perfection are achieved.

The three revolutions of ceramics

It can be argued that ceramics have undergone three revolutions or fundamental changes.

The first is the birth of ceramics itself, which must be situated between the Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic, and which brought about important changes in the life and social organization of primitive man when he was able to have objects to better preserve the food he collected. Pottery was undoubtedly a very positive development that surpassed basketwork in protecting grains and allowing them to be stored for longer. 

On the other hand, the cooking of food began with a change in eating habits. These facts transformed the social organization and prepared the conditions for the great growth of the population that took place in the Neolithic period; when primitive man went beyond the hunting and gathering stage to become a sedentary and agriculturalist, pottery was the element that ensured its storage capacity and gave it a greater horizon in its food possibilities.

At this stage, the kilns are not known. Burning is done at ground level in the form of a fire or pyre, techniques that the potters call "open sky". As a consequence, they can only burn when the weather conditions allow it; otherwise they lose a good percentage of pieces due to lack of heat control. The only improvement in temperature control is to use the pots to cover the fire a little and concentrate the heat. This way of working is prolonged for a very long time with other improvements in the honing, in the adoption of various decorations based on engobes and in the "pastillage" as an ornamental concept.

The second basic change began with the discovery and use of vitreous enamels that allowed the objects to be covered with a layer that achieved greater waterproofing, greater hardness and resistance to deterioration through use. Primitive glazes are those made of lead and silica, which are the most common. The presence of other elements such as red iron, copper or manganese can give the lead base red, green or black colours, respectively.

To achieve the application of glazes, potters have to master the use of kilns, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. The first kilns, generally made of adobe, have a combustion chamber at the bottom prepared for the use of firewood. This chamber, made of arches, holds the pieces to be burned, which are isolated from the environment by the walls. The ovens manage to control and concentrate the heat better than the fires, saving fuel.

According to the terminology currently in use, the ceramics referred to are of "low temperature", that is, the firing temperature of the objects is between 600 and 850 degrees centigrade. Glazed ceramics require two firings: one to harden the clay or ceramic paste and the other to fix the glaze or decoration. The bottle-shaped kilns that the Arabs introduced in Spain were the most important technological innovation of their time.

The third revolution is the discovery of "high temperature" ceramics, so called because it uses temperatures above 1200 degrees centigrade. It requires ceramic pastes with high contents of silica, feldspars and kaolin, which harden, without melting, reaching an incredible degree of hardness, superior to steel. When glazed, these high-temperature pieces are perfectly vitrified and their very hard glazes are highly resistant to abrasion, resistant to the action of acids, absolutely impervious to water and grease. To achieve this type of pieces it was necessary to perfect the kilns, study and master the ceramic pastes in depth and achieve a high technical mastery in all processes.

Pottery in Colonial Mexico

From 1521 onwards, Mexico received the contribution of European ceramics, mainly from Spain. Spanish ceramics are characterized, in the 15th century, by the dominance that the peninsulars had achieved in the application of lead-based glazes and those of the lead-tin mixture. This type of pottery had travelled, to reach Spain, a long route that began in the Middle East, continued through Rome and was taken by the Romans to Spain, but also by the Arabs whose influence lasted 700 years.

At the same time as the reconquest and expulsion of the remains of Arab rule in Spain was consummated, the great geographical discoveries and the conquest of America began. By then, the Spanish potters had assimilated and made their own both the Roman and Arab pottery traditions and there already existed, with a very distinct personality, the Castilian, Mallorcan, Valencian and Alicante potteries, to name but a few.

In the Iberian Peninsula they knew and had great mastery over the kilns, of which the kiln that is still known as "Arabic" is a good example of efficiency and economy in burning, they knew how to build and operate them, they knew various lead-based glazes and knew how to use the pigments that gave them various colours, the reds and blacks that were the basis of the colours of the Barrio de la Luz in Puebla, which are produced from red and black iron oxide and manganese: the greens that were adopted in many places of Mexico and that are given based on lead and copper; the light and raised yellows and the milky ones, made based on lead and tin that characterize the ceramic pieces that in Mexico, take at the present time the name of "majolicas" or "Talavera pottery" and that correspond to the places of more pottery prosapia as Puebla, Guanajuato and Aguascalientes.

The glazes with their tasty milky body emerge in Europe, trying to obtain something similar to Chinese porcelain. Envy for not being able to make porcelain, led European potters in general to create, in search of something similar, something different. This is the antecedent of the pottery that in the Colony forms one of the most important branches of the potter's work in colonial Mexico.

As for the mastery of shapes, the hands-on turners were as good as the pre-Hispanic potters, who with different conceptions of the use of movement in the piece elaborated them efficiently.

If we take a look at the very varied techniques of Spanish pottery production, we will find jugs, jars, bowls, ewer, bowls, jugs, pots, flowerpots, daggerboards, bottles, bottles, porrones, bacines, basins, drains, mortars, chanterelles, barrels, vats, sharks, trays, plates, bowls, tureens, boxes, crates, guards, profiles, basins, delivery notes and many other pieces that by number of roses escape their complete annotation.

Because of its rich pre-Hispanic pottery and this valuable contribution in forms and techniques, we can say that Mexico is one of the few countries that conserves a great ceramic heritage and just as Spain received the Roman and Arab influences, it assimilated them and gave them its special character. Mexico, on a wider pre-Hispanic basis, receives these same influences, makes them its own and this is the reason for the pottery opulence of today's Mexico.

But still Mexico, in the Colony, receives another influence: the oriental, which is established only for the design and decoration of some pieces.

It is well known that the Nao de Manila disembarked its merchandise at the Port of Acapulco where for some years a fair was held, where merchants from all over New Spain came to acquire various objects, among which the notable pieces of oriental pottery from China and Japan, via the Philippines, were taken to the homes of wealthy families in the main towns, among which Mexico, Puebla, Guadalajara, Guanajuato and some others stood out.

The knowledge of these pieces by the potters, their technical perfection in terms of hardness, because they were mostly porcelain, the beauty of their design and decoration, always caused them much admiration and desire to imitate them. The Mexican potters who had assimilated the influences of Spanish ceramics were far from the technical mastery that porcelain making implies; they did not know the techniques of high temperature, nor the oriental kilns that could raise 1400 degrees centigrade and lacked the appropriate clays.

Therefore, like the European ceramists of their time, or perhaps anticipating them, they perfected white and milky glazes with the use of tin and lead, imitating oriental designs and in many cases even themes. It is curious to find in many of the "pigeon breast" tibores made in Puebla, oriental designs and decorations that are a very good imitation of oriental themes, ladies with fans, characters with ponytails, dragons and a whole range of oriental themes.

The glazed ceramics

The first thing that the native potters learned from the Spaniards was in many cases the use of lead glazes, whose waterproofing function was achieved with great labor savings, if compared to the effort involved in burnishing. Their greater hardness and resistance to use made them spread during the Colony. To make this ceramic, two firings had to be carried out: the first to harden the piece, that is to say, the "bizcocho" or sancocho, and the second to "engretar" or "vidriar", that is to say, to apply a solution of lead salts and, if necessary, to decorate and burn it again.

For this, the potters who make glazed earthenware need to have mastery of the kilns. This earthenware cannot be burned at ground level, but a furnace must be built where the fire can be concentrated and reach the highest temperatures required, depending on the case, between 600 and 850 degrees centigrade to make sponge cake and glaze. The ovens for this type of ceramics are from the most economical and simple open-air ones to the "Arabs" in the shape of a bottle that manage to concentrate the heat better.

The ceramic cross breeding that takes place in colonial Mexico spreads to all regions of the new country. All towns of some importance have their "potters' quarters", where the artisans who produce glazed or white pottery live. These generally live in neighborhoods near their clay mines. The difficult communication during the Colony in a huge country, and the particular difficulty of the transport of ceramic objects, forces all the places to be more or less self-sufficient in this line. The diffusion of this pottery is almost general in the country and with the time it is singularized in some places and it acquires its own stamp.

Pottery and social classes

From the point of view of the market to which they go, several destinations can be clearly established: the indigenous pottery that conserves with greater purity its characteristics, has as its main market the indigenous community itself and some other nearby communities, but only participates on a very small scale in the market of the Creoles or mestizos assimilated to the Creoles; if anything because of the recognition of special virtues of the pieces of indigenous mud, such as the scented mud, or the pots that cool the water because they are not completely waterproof, such as the glazed mud, and therefore when the filtered water evaporates it steals heat from the pot, or because of the recognition of how pleasant the textures of the burnished mud are.

As far as the glazed or engraved clay objects are concerned, this pottery is generally made in villages of Spanish settlement, and the potter's quarters are located on the banks. Still until the beginning of the 20th century it was common to find a large number of kilns, most of them round, made of adobe, with semicircular arches in the fire chamber, direct firing and open sky. These types of kilns were quite effective in providing the two burns required: the first to harden the ceramic paste and the other to fix the glaze.

In the first burn, although the potters do not propose to do so, they manage to eliminate the defective pieces and this quality control means that, in the second burn, pieces of the desired quality are obtained. This pottery is largely destined for the mestizo population, which by the end of the eighteenth century is the vast majority of the Mexican people; it is also sold, although on a smaller scale, among the indigenous population, not because they disliked it but because of the low purchasing power that the indigenous people have always had.

As for the upper classes of the Colony, glazed earthenware was accepted by the Creoles with a more developed national sense, as in the cases of Puebla, Guanajuato and Guadalajara, where the Creole houses, particularly those of the large estates, had good quantities of glazed earthenware of the best quality. In terms of architecture, the huts made of local material, for example those made of bajareque and thatched roofs, were generally those of the indigenous peoples, the adobe houses and roofs were those of the mestizo peoples and those made of brick and quarry were those of the Creoles and Spaniards; likewise, this class division operated in many orders of colonial life, including the uses and types of ceramics.

In white or majolica ware, the only native material used was clay that could not be imported from Spain. This pottery was made with the peninsular technique in workshops whose owners and official masters declared themselves to be Spanish, under the guild and customs of Castile. They were pieces made by Spaniards and for consumption by the dominant classes of the Colony, among which were also the Creoles and wealthy mestizos.

The white ware that was made in Puebla, Guanajuato, Dolores, Aguascalientes and Guadalajara, was never a Garata ceramic like the indigenous or glazed ones. If we refer to the testimonies that exist on the subject, we find that in the inventory that was raised to the death of the master potter Juan Garcia in Puebla de los Angeles in 1772, a shark was worth between 6 and 12 pesos, a bowl 14 reales, basins to 8 pesos each, small basins to 2 pesos, tureens to one peso, salad bowls to 6 reales, large pots to 12 reales, medium pots to 6 reales and small pots to 4 reales, pots to 3, salt shakers to 4 and vases to 2 reales. These were pesos at that time.

These data are recorded in that remarkable book on Puebla's white china and tiles, written in 1939 by Mr. Enrique Cervantes, and it is very unfortunate that there are no other similar studies in the other pottery regions of Mexico. The prices indicated were only within the reach of the wealthy, belonging to the ruling classes in the Colony.

High-temperature ceramics

High-temperature ceramics were discovered in the Far East, China, Korea and Japan a little over 2,000 years ago; they began to be made in Europe about 300 years ago and in Mexico they are only three decades old. This technique is known in other countries as stoneware, stainware, large fire stoneware and seki toki. Its grade eight hardness gives it, when it comes to objects of use, a great resistance to abrasion and a long durability. When it comes to pieces that come into contact with food, there is no detachment of glazes or danger of poisoning from this source; its pastes and glazes are resistant to the action of almost all acids, particularly the most common ones; they are not penetrated by grease and are absolutely not permeable.

In Mexico, all handcrafted pottery production, from 1521 to date, is of low temperature and only the incipient industry of the end of the XIX Century began to use average temperatures above 1050 degrees centigrade for industrial ceramic objects.

In the 1950s, high-temperature ceramics appeared in Mexico and a very small group of ceramists began to learn this technique in different parts of the world: Jorge Wilmot, who settled in Tonalá, Jalisco, studied in Germany; Hugo Velázquez, currently based in Cuernavaca, Morelos, studied in the United States; and Graciela Díaz de León, based in Mexico City, studied in Japan. These people can be considered as the pioneers of high temperature in Mexico. In the 1960s, experimentation with this technique began in the School of Design and Crafts, and by this time there were only a few workshops with very limited experimental production.

Currently, only in Tonalá, Jalisco, following the school of Jorge Wilmot, there are about twenty workshops; in the State of Mexico there are eight, in Morelos four, in Mexico City. there are six and in other states seven. Today, there must be about fifty workshops in the country, which speaks of the development that this type of ceramics has had in such a short time. Still the production of high temperature handcrafted objects, compared to the production of industrial ceramics, is very reduced, but every day that passes it increases and achieves more understanding from the public and as a consequence the demand increases, stimulating the establishment of new workshops that are producing pieces both for decoration and use.

The better knowledge of the handling of oxidizing or reducing atmospheres, depending on the case, that is to say, that the burning is carried out in an oxygen-rich or reduced atmosphere, which can be controlled by means of the entry of air into the kiln, has widened the range of colours in high-temperature ceramics, which is more reduced than in low-temperature ceramics. There is still a long way to go to enrich the colours and textures in large fire stoneware.

The new traditions

Mexico is a melting pot, a great melting pot that has received and assimilated influences from all orders and has assimilated them with its own stamp by initiating new traditions. Ceramics and high temperature techniques cannot be unaware of this phenomenon. It is necessary to remember that the sum of knowledge that gives shape to a craft technique, we could affirm that it is universal heritage and-that countries or regions give them only particular accents. The world and Mexico are a great collage and the national accent is only an interpretation.

The colonial era brought with it proposals from different parts of the world; across the Atlantic, came goods and culture that Islam brought to Europe, in addition to Western culture itself. Through the Pacific came goods from the East, (according to the European vision, because for us it is the West). Through the products that arrived by sea, one had here an idea of the cultural production of the whole world.

The European middle classes, who could not afford to buy porcelain, were satisfied with Talavera; shipments of porcelain destined for the European market arrived in Mexico, some of which remained here to satisfy the demand of the wealthy.

The vast majority of the inhabitants of these lands did not have access to the goods that were imported. The results of the colonization were devastating; diseases, the forced work that the Indians did for the encomenderos, the appropriation of the lands by the victors, the changes in the diet, among other factors, decimated the population.

Even so, part of the original cultures continued with their cultural practices. Pottery was one of the activities that continued, as it was necessary for many of the daily activities of the dominated. The preparation of food, made necessary the production of pots, comales, jugs, strainers, among other various pieces for the kitchen.

The local potters were used to producing two types of products: some tools for cooking over a fire (fire pottery), and others with characteristics that allowed the liquids stored there to remain fresh (water pottery).

Probably very soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan, craftsmen arrived who knew the European techniques and above all the forms that were familiar to them. In addition, they needed pieces such as tiles, gargoyles, pipes, and other tools in the house and in daily life. They also brought the metal central axis lathe that they were used to working with.

For the finishing of the pottery, the technique of glazing was introduced, which gave a luster and color to the clay pieces. At first with this technique, "honey" finishes were produced, which are still made. Around this time, the manufacture of the type of pottery known as majolica or talavera began, which replaced Chinese porcelain among the lower income Creoles and Spaniards, who could not afford it.

Some archaeological explorations that have been carried out in Mexico City, suggest that the first kilns for the production of majolica may have been located in the vicinity of the current Alameda Central, because among the remains of what was made there, in addition to fragments of majolica vessels, have been located cylindrical clay structures that surely served to avoid the plates sticking, being glazed inside the oven.

The marks left by the tricoles (three small conical supports made of baked clay, to separate the pieces in the oven) on the glazed pottery are visible and serve as a guide to recognize the ancient majolica. Nowadays, other types of supports are used, popularly called "gallitos" or "caballitos", whose marks are less visible.

Another of the techniques used at that time to make the pottery, necessary for the daily activities in the city, was the smoothing. Among the pieces that were made were the pateras (the voice is Latin, although it is said that the general form of the vessels comes from Islam), which have also been called apastles, lebrillos or virreinal dishes. The pateras are shallow concave vessels, about 20 centimeters in diameter, with edges that rise three or four centimeters straight; the color of the terracotta is orange or light brown. They have usually been sealed at the bottom, with a symbol or nomogram similar to cattle seals; here the seal leaves a relief. In the squares of castes they appear in places where pulque was sold. Similarly, unglazed pieces continued to be made for the demand of the city's inhabitants.

The cylindrical open-air furnaces, with a lower chamber for combustion once loaded with the pieces to be baked, are covered with the large pieces of the pieces that were broken or had defects. These serve as heat reflectors and protect the pieces in process from violent changes in temperature that would possibly fracture them.

Potters are in a permanent process of experimentation and innovation; man's job in pottery is to provide experience. These do not always mean "progress" or "development". One of the characteristics of certain productions is the use of wire; although this material was known since the Mesoamerican era, it is perhaps towards the end of the 19th century that the use of wire began in the trees of life in Izucar, Puebla, and in the gúijolas (a type of whistle) that were made in Tlaxcala and Guanajuato. The same happens with the small groups of shepherds and sheep that are made in the area of Tonalá in Jalisco.

By other ways, with other methods, there is what has been called local or peasant science, which manages to reach its own objectives and is capable of transmitting its knowledge from generation to generation. The meeting or gathering of knowledge is expressed in what has been called high temperature pottery. Experimentation with shape and decoration is a very old practice in Mexico. To prove it, it is enough to see the pottery production of the high cultures that populated this territory.

There are communities that have adopted some notable changes; among them is the use of industrial fuels for baking and the use of industrial paints and varnishes in decoration. Fortunately, the pressure has not caused many producing localities to change their traditional forms of production; they continue with a dynamic that is developed from within the community.

By: Alberto Diaz de Cossío, Francisco Javier Álvarez, Source: Fonart