Clay in the Americas

Raw material

Clay is a material widely used in Mexican, Central and South American arts and crafts. The raw material is dug from the ground and collected from river beds.  In the region of Oaxaca most of the deposits of clay are under the corn fields, which means that it can only be collected between January and May, after harvesting and before sowing the next crop.  In order to work with clay it has to be cleaned, by soaking in water. This allows the heavier impurities to sink to the bottom, while the finer clay forms a creamy layer at the top, which is then removed.


Tools and colouring

Ceramic work in Mexico is usually hand formed. Early cultures did not develop a potter’s wheel but used coiling and forming techniques instead.  Tools used in working clay are also usually traditional, and include use of corn cobs, gourds and leather pieces.  Pots and figurines are not usually glazed, with pottery more commonly finished in slip - a liquid clay, often coloured red with iron oxide. Pots are often burnished to give them a final shine, which involves rubbing the surface vigorously, usually with a piece of quartz.  Sculptural pieces tend not to be burnished and have a characteristic matte finish.


Firing methods

Early cultures did not develop kilns, using fire pits instead. Traditional firings are still common today, and instrumental in developing the distinctive colour and finish of Mexican and Central American ceramic crafts.