A piece of Aztec pottery, painted blue, with two eyes, fangs, and other images painted on. Discovered at Templo Mayor

Aztec Pottery: What It Was Used For and How It Was Made

Aztec pottery offers some of the most fascinating, and beautiful, insights into their world. Like in so many other societies throughout time, the Aztecs depended on pottery for aspects of their personal, economic, and religious lives. And, any good archaeologist will tell you that pottery never truly disappears, it just gets broken into smaller pieces. So, the archaeological record is littered with piles of marvelously crafted Aztec pottery, which, believe it or not, was all created without a potter’s wheel!

By examining the abundance of ceramics the Aztecs left us, we can better understand how they lived their daily lives, how their empire functioned, and how their culture evolved over time.

Aztec Pottery in Everyday Life

For the majority of people in the Aztec Empire, pottery served a very utilitarian purpose. In the average Aztec home, you would have found rough, unadorned ceramics hanging from the walls or lined against the wall. 

Large Aztec vessel, demonstrating how they used many thin parallel lines combined to create their wares.

The typical Aztec (or Mexica, as they called themselves), would have had a large jar or two for storing water, a small collection of plates for their family to eat with, as well as pots for cooking their food and soaking maize kernels overnight. While the fruits of the Aztec Empire would eventually allow commoners to have some decorated pottery in their homes, the elites had them from the get go. 

Image of a man pouring chocolate into Aztec pottery from the Codex Tudela.
A man pouring chocolate from Codex Tudela.

Like the average Aztec, the nobility would have used this pottery for serving meals, drinking and storing water, and other quotidian tasks. Unlike the commoners, however, the elites had access to the finest pottery in the region. Rather than simple dishes, they had elegantly painted goblets, serving bowls, and, most posh of all, cocoa jugs that stores the sweet and spicy treat of the elite: chocolate. Such chocolate jugs were one of the most important Aztec vessels, as shown by the beautifully painted geometric shapes and patterns in the image to the left.

The pottery of the Aztec nobility also served another important purpose in their daily lives. The fine ceramics used by the nobility was often used as gifts, both personal and diplomatic, with their fellow elites. As such, any Aztec noble worth his salt could, and did, use their pottery as a display of their power and wealth, and to brag about their connection to other leaders and noblemen in Mesoamerica.

But, unlike most of their fellow Mexica, the nobility didn’t simply go to the market to buy their wares, or (dare I suggest it?) make their own. Rather, they imporated all their pottery from Cholula, a town within the Aztec sphere of influence renowned for its pottery making skills. Indeed, in excavation of Montezuma II’s palace, archaeologist have found such Cholulan pottery. But, I guess nothing is too good for an emperor, after all. 

Aztec Pottery and Their Empire

With so much pottery making going on in Mexico, and its everyday use by Mexica of every social level, it’s little wonder that ceramics became hugely important to the Aztec Empire. 

Unlike Old World kingdoms and empires of the time, the Aztecs did not have a monetary system. This meant that when it came time to collect taxes, people couldn’t simply hand over the requisite amount of coins or cash. 

But, what’s the point of empire if you can’t get rich off of it? So, the Aztecs devised a taxation system where subjects and client states payed their taxes in kind. To pay taxes in kind simply meant to give tangible objects over the empire as a form of payment, and pottery quickly became a prime means of payment. 

By tracking the origins of the pottery that made its way into Tenochtitlan as part of both imperial payments and trade, archaeologists have pieced together the extent of the economy the empire created. 

Unsurprisingly, most Aztec pottery has been found in the Mexico Basin, the core of the Aztec state. With their capital Tenochtitlan located on Lake Texcoco smack dab in the middle of Mexico, the Aztecs used the lake as a highway for trade. But, as their empire expanded, so too did their trade network.

To the east and west, archaeologists have found Aztec pottery on the costs of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific ocean, respectively. To the south, Aztec pottery has turned up at Oaxaca, Mexico, 750 miles away from Tenochtitlan, and even as far as central Guatemala.

At its height, the Aztec Empire had a truly impressive economy and trade network – the pottery doesn’t lie.

What Ceramics Tell Us About Aztec Culture

As one of the most commonly produced commodities in the Aztec world, pottery and other ceramics can tell us a lot about the Mexica people and their society. From the stratification of their society to religious practices and how they viewed their own legacy in Mesoamerica, Aztec pottery has an interesting story to tell. 

The Haves and Have Nots

Aztec society became highly stratified in the years following Tenochtitlan’s founding. Most Mexica would have worked as farmers, manning the chinampas around Lake Texcoco that supplied the capital enormous amounts of food. These farmers and other commoners would, as noted earlier, have used rough bowls and plates in their everyday lives, that had no art or decoration to speak of. 

While the Aztecs weren’t renowned for their pottery, they did develop their own distinct style overtime. Remains of what we call “black-on-orange” ceramics have been found throughout the bounds of the Aztec domain. This unique Aztec design was created by firing the clay until it turned a distinctive bright orange; then, once cooled, applying painted designs with black dyes.

Sold mainly out of the markets of major cities and towns, Aztecs of every social class purchased and used black-on-orange pottery. Over the years, Aztecs artisans became adept at this means of making pottery, and major production centers churned out virtually identical black-on-orange wares.

Image of the of black-on-orange  style of Aztec pottery
An example of black-on-orange clay wares painted with amazing repeating patterns.

For those at the very tip top of Aztec society, however, not even the black-on-orange would do. The richest of the rich imported their pottery from a nearby city called Cholula. Indeed Cholula pottery had long been recognized as the best the Mesoamerican world had to offer. In contrast to the Aztec style, Cholula pottery came in a variety of colors and used more complex designs, such as stylized feathers and important gods.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador who chronicled the conquest of the Aztec Empire, noted that Cholula made “very good pottery… of red and black and white clay painted in various designs, and they supply Mexico and all neighboring provinces with it, as Talavera or Placencia do in Castile.”

The best Aztec pottery, hands down, came from Cholula.

Tapping Into a Larger Legacy

As the conquerors of Mesoamerica, the Aztecs believed themselves to be the next great civilization in a long line of great civilizations. They had, in their minds, inherited the torch of civilization from the Olmecs and Toltecs who had come before them. They even made frequent pilgrimages to Teotihuacan, an ancient city to the north of Tenochtitlan. 

All of this comes through in Aztec pottery, especially that from Cholula. 

Cholulan pottery was created in a style that dates back to the tenth-century and became the “international style” for Mesoamerican art, now called the Mixteca-Puebla style. As the Aztec nobility made this elaborate pottery, filled with beautiful painted designs, their style of choice, they signaled two things: they were the true successors of the Toltec legacy and this legitimized the political power they held.

Image of the Mixtec-Peubla style of Aztec pottery
An example of clay Mixtec-Peubla open bowls with beautful orange designs, as well as yellow and blue patterns.

Just like with so many other powerful people through time, art wasn’t just art.

Everyday Religion

A lot has been written on Aztec religion, the Mexica’s deities, and how this related to the Aztec state. History books and blogs practically overflow with the stories of enormous pyramid temples and state-sponsored human sacrifice utilized by the Aztecs as offerings to their patron sun deity, Huitzilopochtli. But, everyday Mexica didn’t always have the chance to go to a temple to pray. Instead, they often displayed piety and worshiped their gods from home.

Archaeologists have discovered that household rituals in the Mexica world often involved incense burners, ceramic figures, and other types of Aztec pottery. These figurines often took the shapes of animals, with birds, possums, and monkeys being popular figures. Archaeologists and historians believe these clay figurines were used in rituals meant to promote fertility and aid in the curing and healing of the sick. Unfortunately, how these rituals were conducted and the figures were used, exactly, remains unknown.

Finally, when it came time for one’s burial, the presence, or lack of a certain ceramic showcased, for one last time, one’s social standing. Poorer and middle class people were buried in their homes, with the possessions they would need to make the journey to the afterlife. The upper crust, however, was often cremated. After their cremation, the ashes of Aztec elites were placed in funerary urns and given a place in their local temples. 

Cremation of the of the Aztec Emperor Auitzotl from the Aztec Codices
Cremation of the of the Aztec Emperor Auitzotl

From birth to death, rich or poor, Aztec pottery played a crucial part in the life of the Mexica.

Resources on Aztec Pottery

  1. “Aztec pottery,” mexicolore.co.uk/
  2. Mary G. Hodge, Hector Neff, M. James Blackman, and Leah D. Minc, “Black-on-Orange Ceramic Production in the Aztec Empire’s Heartland,” repository.si.edu
  3. Ibid
  4. Michael E. Smith, “Long Distance Trade Under the Aztec Empire: The Archaeological Evidence,” public.asu.edu.
  5. Mary G. Hodge, Hector Neff, M. James Blackman, and Leah D. Minc, “Black-on-Orange Ceramic Production in the Aztec Empire’s Heartland,” repository.si.edu
  6. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conqeust of New Spain (New York: Penguin, 2003)
  7. Stacie M. King, “Comment. on Style, Memory, and the Production of History,” Current Anthropology , vol. 59, no. 6 (December 2018): 756-757.
  8. Michael E. Smith, “Aztec-Style Ceramic Figurines from Yautepec, Morelos,” public.asu.edu
  9. Christina M. Elson and Michael E. Smith, “Archaeological Deposits From the Aztec New Fire Ceremony,” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 12, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 157.
  10. “Basic Aztec Facts: Aztec Burials,” mexicolore.co.uk
  11. “Question for December 2008,” mexicolore.co.uk

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