Built atop a sheer-walled, 370-foot sandstone bluff in a valley studded with sacred, towering monoliths in New Mexico, Sky City has remained suspended in time for two millennia. The village is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America today, and it is recognized worldwide for its unique art and rich culture. For a thousand years, the people of Aak'u, which has been translated from Keresan as "mesa top" and also as "a place prepared," have been making pottery--vessels of everyday life, of ritual, and of great beauty. During the seventeenth century, potters developed the matte-painted polychrome style, which continues today. Pottery making is learned by children from their parents and grandparents, and is passed on from one generation to the next. In one family, grandmother, mother, aunt, cousin, and grandchild may all be potters.
Acoma pots are created from local, slate-like clays. First, the clay must be mined from the earth at sites accessible by foot outside of the village. When first dug, the clay is rocky and slate-like, and large hunks are broken to manageable pieces. If it is damp, it is left to dry in the sun for days. When dry, it is sifted clean to get extract unwanted matter like twigs and pebbles before being crushed and pulverized. Temper, in the form of clay potshards sometimes hundreds of years old, is hand-ground to a powder and added to the clay to bind, strengthen, and prevent it from shrinking and cracking. A vessel made from tempered Acoma clay is strong enough to allow the potter to make the characteristic thin walls of traditional pottery when fired. The Acoma clay is traditionally fired to produce a pure white vessel.
The correct mixture of ground clay and pulverized potshard temper can take days. It is first dry-blended before water and more temper are added until the right consistency is reached, which is determined by experience and feel. The pot is started by molding the base in a form called a basket, huditzi, gourd, or bowl, which is the support for the vessel's bottom. The body is built by adding clay coils shaped to the intended form. The time it takes to build a pot varies, as time must pass between the addition of each coil to prevent the sides from collapsing inward. As the shape gains more definition, it is smoothed by hand-scraping with a wood tool. After drying to the right firmness, it is again scraped and smoothed to its desired thinness, and before being smoothly sanded with a stone.
A fine white kaolin clay is used to make the white slip of traditional Acoma pottery from a mixture of fine clay and water. The potter brushes on several coats of the white slip, which needs to dry between each coat. After the final coat, the pot is again sanded with a stone. This slip serves as an ideal base for the paints most Acoma potters use. The white backgrounds allow the Acoma potters to create crisp, detailed black images, as well as rich polychrome designs. The Acoma use two types of paints, which are vegetable or mineral based, for their intricate designs. The clays, vegetable binders, and mineral pigments for the distinctive Acoma polychrome are gathered or dug locally and are ground and mixed by the potter to get the intended colors. The pot is then painted with the specially prepared pigments, often with a yucca brush, much as it has been done for hundreds of years. The exact mixtures of binder, water and pigment must be used or the colors will be either too powdery and flake off after firing or be too watery and pale.
The last step of firing changes and deepens the colors while bonding them permanently to the clay. Traditional Acoma pottery is fired at a very high temperature, which makes the pot stronger. Since the early 1970s, most traditional potters fire their pots in an electric kiln, which can maintain the steady high temperature desired, about 1,873 degrees Fahrenheit / 1,023 degrees Centigrade, a temperature that rarely can be reached in exposed outdoor pit firing.
Since before 1600, jars for carrying and storing water (duu'ni), have been made at Acoma and decorated with elaborate polychrome geometric, rainbow, bird, floral, animals and other historic and prehistoric motifs. These patterns are inspired by prehistoric Mimbres designs. Many anthropologists believe that the Acoma and Laguna people are ancestors of the prehistoric Mimbres people who migrated up from the Silver City, New Mexico area, hence this group's interest in the Mimbres. Other pottery include pitchers, grain storage jars, dough bowls, seed jars, serving and food bowls, and canteens. The double-spouted wedding vase form has been popular since the late 1800s. Today, potters also make storytellers, figural vessels, such as owls,turtles, and frogs, and pots with a twin-headed motif. The figural vessels continue traditions of pottery styles that are a thousand years old.
Some of the world's most recognized Acoma potters come from the Chino, Lewis, Cerno, Garcia, Aragon, Torivio, Antonio, Vallo, Concho, and Sandoval families.