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Good Impressions, Part 5: The ceramic legacy of Moorish Spain

Cuerda seca, lion in a landscape, 17th century. Source: Wikimedia

Cuerda Seca: While investigating an Art Nouveau method of tilemaking, cuenca, I learned about the technique from which it originated: cuerda seca. The latter is a Portuguese word meaning ‘dry string.’ Coated string was used to make a line of black resist to prevent glazes from running. Originally, the string was saturated in animal fat and minerals that blackened when fired, like iron or manganese. The fat soaked string was heated, placed on the piece to outline the design, then burned off in firing, leaving a black line that separated colors. Cuerda seca is an Islāmic method of tile decoration that was brought to Spain by the Moors. Wikipedia states that “the craft is still in use in the Arab world” with two main traditions, Egyptian and Moroccan Zalij. “This origin explains the unmistakable Arab influences in many tiles: interlocking curvilinear, geometric or floral motifs.” In Spain, Seville became the tilemaking center where cuerda seca tiles were made. Recently, Christie’s sold a tile panel from Toledo for 10,000 Euros at the Decorative Arts Sale, held in Amsterdam in June.

Vase with palm tree. 8th–9th century CE, Iran. Source: Wikimedia

Cuenca: In the 19th century, cuerda seca was again popularized during the Art Nouveau period. The style evolved during that time. Sometimes designs were simply outlined with black. Cuenca, a Moorish method of outlining with slips and engobes also became popular then. In fact, it became a hallmark of ceramics during the Art Nouveau period. Cuenca means ‘basin;’ a reservoir was created by the trailed slips into which glazes were pooled. There is a tie-in with the Arts and Crafts period, too, as style eras overlapped. It was during this time that the cuenca method also came to be known as tube-lining. Because of the popularity of bungalow style, since the 1990s, there has been a return to the production of these decorative methods and motifs. Motawi, Historic Style, and Du Quella Tile & Clayworks, and are but a few potteries that sell ceramics made in the cuenca style. Today, safer methods are used for cuerda seca, too, which has also experienced a comeback. Now, black wax resist is used to outline designs. Using Aftosa’s product, black lines will remain up to Cone 8. These decorative styles and methods have spanned centuries and are still actively used. That’s what I call staying power! In the early 1990s, my mother gave me an Art Nouveau vase. Little did I know then that I would come to learn about the method with which it is made, cuerda seca, or that I would be writing about it today….

My Art Nouveau cuerda seca vase

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Good Impressions Part 1: Bisqued Clay Stamps

Excavation of the Earth Lodge in Ocmulgee National Monument, Macon, Georgia, USA – Original caption: Early stage in (archeological) excavation of the ceremonial earthlodge at Ocmulgee. Date early 1930s. Source: Works Progress Administration

Stamps have been used to decorate pottery for millennia. Recently, I read about ancient paddle stamps on a website about the Ocmulgee National Monument in the southern U.S. It was first thought that the pottery found was American Indian in origin, from the Mississippian Culture. However, telltale signs revealed that designs were not North American. “This pottery has such close parallels at a like early period in northeastern Asia that many students believe it may have been brought here by direct migration, though naturally over a period of generations. Its chief characteristic is the roughening of its surfaces with the marks of twisted cords and somewhat later with those made by a plaited basketry fabric. ” Stamps at the Ocmulgee site are in the form of wooden paddles. The National Park Service site says “The paddle itself may have been carved with simple straight grooves, or it may have been wrapped with a thong or smooth bit of plant fiber such as honeysuckle vine.” Click here to see a photo of the wooden stamps they found and photographs of shards showing impressions from stamping (lower down).

This Series will take a look at all forms of stamping to create textures on clay. We will focus on ways to make impressions on clay manually. What we’ll look at: types of stamps, materials with which to make stamps, and how to use stamps. You can’t fully predict what the final results will look like based on the stamp alone; there is an element of chance. But, with practice, you can achieve reliable results.

Bisqued Stamps

Hand Stamp some are cylinder shaped with stamps carved on the end, others are cubes…with stamps on one or all sides. Hand stamps create a single mark when pressed on clay. The cylinders seem more ergonomic to me and they would definitely be easier to use for people with arthritis. Clay Stamps‘ Etsy shop carries carved clay stamps in cylinder form. The method of carving your design is the same for either form and here is a tutorial that shows you how to make cube-shaped stamps: click here.

Roller Stamp This stamp is used like a rolling pin; it has texture over the surface of the a cylinder that is either smaller solid ones or larger hollow stamps. In this video, a potter also demonstrates how to make and use this type of stamp.

Stamp Designs Of course, before you begin, you need to have a working idea. If you are fresh out of ideas and need inspiration, go to a scrapbook store and look at the rubber stamps. What would like nice in clay and how you might alter what you see? Another idea is to search through the design series from Dover. Or go to your local library to find books on design or individual subjects, flora and fauna. Or you could research designs by culture. For instance, the Mayans used beautiful handmade stamps on their pottery…



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Mesa Verde and the Anasazi cliff dwellers

I’m not sure how old I was when I saw the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, but it must have been in the late 1960s, when we moved either to or from Texas. Since then, I’ve seen many sights, but the “green table” stands alone. The impression Mesa Verde makes is so great, you just don’t forget. I remember the impossibility of it all and the enormous overhanging cliffs…. A great silence engulfs the area today, but in ancient times it housed a rich and thriving culture. The ingenuity and tenacity of the Anasazi still astounds me. Back when my brothers and I were scrambling around it, there weren’t as many restrictions. Thankfully, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is a very good thing because it is a fragile site and, while well-preserved, it needed more protection than it had when we whirled through like dust devils.

The geology of Mesa Verde determined what sort of shelter the Anasazi had as well as the type of water supply that was available. The tan cliffs . . . are composed of sandstone, a porous rock which allows rain, snow, and running water to slowly seep down through it. Beneath this sandstone is a layer of shale through which the moisture cannot penetrate. Water reaches the shale, flows between the two layers and emerges in the form of a seep or spring such as the one at the head of [the] canyon.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 3.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. By Sascha Brück via Wikimedia Commons

Around A.D. 1200, some of the people living on Mesa Verde moved down into the alcoves, often occupying the same ones that had been inhabited by their ancestors, the Basketmaker people, 600 years earlier. . . . The construction of Cliff Palace was a herculean effort, most of which occurred in a very short time, only about twenty years…. To create a level floor, the builders of Cliff Palace erected a retaining wall along the front of the alcove and backfilled behind the wall, making a flat working surface and solid foundation for rooms. Some 150 rooms-living rooms, storage rooms, and special chambers, plus nearly 75 open spaces-were eventually created.” — Rose Houk, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde Museum Association

Mesa Verde National Park Spruce Tree House Kiva 2006 09 12

Kiva at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park. Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia

Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling among several hundred within park boundaries (Cliff Palace and Long House are larger), was constructed between A.D. 1200 and 1276 by the Anasazi. The dwelling contains about 114 rooms and eight kivas (kee-vahs), or ceremonial chambers, built into a natural cave measuring 216 feet (66 meters) at greatest width and 89 feet (27 meters) at its greatest depth. It is thought to have been home for about 100 people.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 5.

Mesa Verde Pueblo II corrugated jars

Mesa Verde Pueblo II corrugated jars. By National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons

When Spruce Tree House was occupied, the courtyard . . . was filled with activity. Here women ground corn into flour, made pottery, wove baskets and prepared food. Men made stone tools, turkey feather or cotton blankets, or prepared for summer planting. Older people sat in the sun and talked, while children, domesticated turkeys, and barking dogs scurried about the plaza.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 11

 

 

[T]he kivas had an efficient ventilation system. The large pit in the center of the floor was a fireplace. Fresh air was drawn in through the ventilator shaft at your feet, hit the deflector wall between the ventilator outlet and the firepit and circulated evenly through the entryway. Beyond the firepit in the center of the floor is a small hole. This hole, called a sipapu (see-pah-poo), represents the opening through which man emerged onto the face of the earth. . . . Niches held special ceremonial objects such as turquoise, shell beads, and prayer sticks. . . . The bench was used for storage of many ceremonial objects; the pilasters supported the beams of the roof.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p.15.

This is a section view of Kiva A in Mesa Verde’s Fire Temple, cut from laser scan data. Kiva is a Puebloan term for ceremonial rooms, and most of the Kivas at Mesa Verde are round in form and subterranean. The entire courtyard of Fire Temple itself is defined as a Great Kiva by both modern Puebloans such as the Hopi and by archaeologists due to its design and entirely non-domestic function. However, since Fire Temple was at least partially built to conform to the dimensions of the cliff alcove in which it was built, it is neither round in form nor truly subterranean. Along the southern terminus of Kiva A are the foundations of an original wall or a stepped bench. Archaeologists have disagreed over the years as to whether this represents an enclosure to the Fire Temple’s Kiva, or whether it would have been open at the front perhaps to keep its prominent fire hearth visible from some distance away. Kiva A’s walls were originally covered in white paint, with black and red geometric designs and symbols on it that are very similar to those found on black and white pottery found in Mesa Verde from the same time period. Due to exposure to the elements over time only scattered remnants of this paint remain intact and most of the designs are faded. By CyArk via Wikimedia Commons

Mesa Verde Pueblo II Mancos Black-on-White jar and ladle

Mesa Verde Pueblo II Mancos Black-on-White jar and ladle. By National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.— Willa Cather

Long House

Long House in the Mesa Verde National Park. By Khlnmusa Kyong H. Lee (Kyong H. Lee via Wikimedia

By A.D. 1300 nearly everyone had left Mesa Verde, and in fact the entire Four Corners area that had been the center of Ancestral Puebloan culture. They departed for a number of possible reasons. A long-term drought at the end of the 1200s had been documented. Without water, crops would shrivel and people would be thirsty. Essential resources such as fertile soils, wood, and wildlife might have been exhausted after centuries of harvest and use. Warfare, disease, and internal disputes have also been offered as explanations. . . . but people did not “vanish.” By all evidence, they went south to the Hopi villages in northern Arizona, to Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the pueblos along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. To some of them, Cliff Palace remains a special place.” Rose Houk, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde Museum Association (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 15.

Map of Mesa Verde National Park

Map of Mesa Verde National Park. National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons

To people off alone, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk over every day. — Willa Cather

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Photo: Earthenware footed bowl with two handles from Mycenae, circa 1300-1200 BC.

Mykenische Fußschale mit Doppelhenkel, Hetjens-Museum Düsseldorf (DerHexer)

Footed Bowl with two handles from Mycenae. Earthenware, from 1300-1200 BC. Picture taken in Hetjens-Museum DüsseldorfBy DerHexer via Wikimedia Commons

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