Burning the Pottery

The Catawba pottery tradition finishes with the firing process, or burning as the Indians call it, yet as a rule, few outsiders have watched this dramatic event. Realizing the importance of the burning, the potters describe the process for the curious and sometimes provide a video. There is no substitute though for watching the flames of the bonfire engulf the vessels. It is a beautiful sight to see a finely crafted jar nestled in a bed of smoldering coals. No matter what one's technical understanding might be, it is always a marvel that a vessel can be taken from such a violent situation ready for use. The vessels leave the fire ready to sell. It might be desirable to dust each piece lightly with a clean rag, but this step is hardly necessary. Not even the fire's soot clings to the pot. In its dramatic metamorphosis, the vessel has risen above the fire.

While the Catawba burning process can be a joyous affair, there is no more empty feeling than that experienced when the potters hear a fire-engulfed vessel crack with a metallic ping. All of the potters learn to live with the reality of the fire's dangers. Each one of them has waited patiently for the right moment to retrieve a load of wares from the coals only to discover that a prized piece is damaged. The Catawba have always been reluctant to sell broken pieces, and family members are quick to claim pottery that can be displayed but not sold. Earl and Viola Robbins cleverly save such pieces and present them as gifts to children who accompany their parents to the Robbins home to buy pottery.

The Catawba potters have shunned the European kiln for over 300 years. This device, if used, would destroy the character of their wares. The contemporary firing method, however, is a mixture of aboriginal technology and modern innovation. Harrington was first to note the rather complicated history of the Catawba burning method. To his dismay, the potters were accustomed to using the hearth. In order to meet Harrington's desires to see a purely aboriginal firing process, the

Pottery Burning

Figure 64. Burning pottery. (Photos by Thomas J. Blumer)

  1. Top: Vessels engulfed in flames.
  2. Bottom: Vessels nestled in cooling ashes.

Figure 64. Burning pottery. (Photos by Thomas J. Blumer)

  1. Top: Vessels engulfed in flames.
  2. Bottom: Vessels nestled in cooling ashes.

Brown family staged an outdoor burning (Harrington 1908). Additional changes have occurred in the Catawba method of firing in the last 90 years.


The Catawba potters used a simple bonfire to burn their pottery, from the most ancient times until around 1900. The bonfire remains crucial to the appearance of Catawba pottery, but the fire has undergone some historic changes during the last century. Harrington's notes provide the only extant description of the process as recalled by John and Rachel Brown:

The first step was to prop the vessels up around the fire, their mouths toward the blaze. . . . Here they remained for two or three hours, a peculiar black color spreading over them as they grew hotter. When this color had become uniform—a sign that they were hot enough—John [Brown] raked the blazing brands out of the fire and inverted the vessels upon the coals and hot ashes . . . which were then pushed up around them and the whole covered quickly with pieces of dry bark pulled from old pine stumps. . . . When the bark had burned away, the red-hot vessels were pulled out and allowed to cool slowly around the fire. One had cracked, as predicted, and all the pieces were more or less mottled by drafts. The black color of the first heating, however, had given place to the typical reddish yellow of Catawba pottery. (Harrington 1908:405)


Although Harrington was not interested in the contemporary Catawba use of the hearth, it was hardly a modern innovation for the Brown family. In the middle of the eighteenth century, King Hagler wrote Governor Glenn to send a man who could build a chimney (Wyle 1759:485-486). The Indians had already realized that a hearth and its accompanying chimney were preferable to a blazing, smoking bonfire in the middle of the home. While 1759 might be considered a rough date for the introduction of the fireplace among the Catawba, the date for its adoption as a tool in the pottery tradition will always remain speculative. As late as the 1840s, the Catawba were described as living in temporary camps. Such families probably continued to burn pottery in an open bonfire. However, since cabin-dwelling settlers had long surrounded the Indians, some of the Catawba certainly were accustomed to living in European-style homes and had access to a hearth. After the Catawba were fully settled on their 650-acre reservation, each family constructed a log cabin. These homes were presumably outfitted with a stone, or stick and mud, chimney. It is likely that Margaret Brown's generation (1837 to 1922) witnessed the full transition from the open bonfire to the hearth. Both John and Rachel Brown no doubt grew up seeing pottery burned in both a fireplace and an open fire depending on the whim of the potter at the moment.

Today, the hearth as the location for the burning process has nearly followed the bonfire into extinction. There are, however, many potters who have used the hearth and can describe the method:

[Martha Jane Harris] heated them and burned them right there in the fireplace. They'd stack them up. She had a big old fireplace from what I remember, and she'd stack them up around that fire. . . . If she had bowls, she'd stack them up on top of each other. . . . And she'd build a little fire in the center and gradually increase it so the pots got . . . hot enough to stand it. Then she'd build a bigger fire, and then when they got real white looking, she'd turn them around and let that fire burn down and then lift the pots and put them on a bed of coals and just build a fire right on top of them. (Georgia Harris, Field Notes, 1977, BC)

The major problem with using the hearth was the great heat generated by the fire and its contents and the length of time required to complete the process. "We [the Wheelock family] would start early in the morning when we got up, and she [Rosie Wheelock] always closed the doors up. She didn't want a bit of air to get to those pots. She said they would break, and the house would be like a furnace in the summer time. It would take her all day long . . . to have a burning of pots" (Doris Blue, Field Notes, 1977, BC).

The Catawba, in shifting from the bonfire to the hearth, actually made no technological changes in burning their wares. The two processes are identical except for the location. In both cases the vessels are placed in a circle around the fire to complete the drying process and heat the vessels in preparation for the fire's full force. Although the potters would argue otherwise, breakage problems resulting from drafts were not eliminated by the hearth since the chimney remained open throughout the burning. The potters did, however, effectively deal with wind and precipitation. Using the sheltered hearth, they could safely burn a load of pottery during a sudden tropical downpour.

Although the cabins were insufferably hot and the process took the better part of a day, the potters only abandoned the hearth as they modernized their homes with efficient furnaces. This process was slow, however. For instance, while most of the potters discontinued using the hearth in the 1940s, Arzada Sanders persisted in using her hearth until she retired from pottery making in 1980.

We always burn 35 to 37 pieces in a fire, perhaps 25 large pieces. They are stacked six or seven deep all around the edges of the fireplace. A little fire is built in the middle and kept going for about five hours. Gradually the fire is made larger until the pots are hot. If the fire touches a pot prematurely, the pot will pop like a firecracker. When the pots are hot enough, the fire is spread out and the pots are put on the coals. A bonfire is then built on top. We add wood three times and allow each fire to burn down. In the last step we add pulp wood chips that we got from a local saw mill. The color comes on at this point, as the pots glow red in color. The color depends on the smoke and how it touches the pots and how the pots are laying in the coals. We cannot control how the pots are laying in the coals. Oak is used most of the time. Pine will ruin a pot. During the summer we burn pots every Saturday. (Fred Sanders, interview, 8 February 1977, BC)

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  • cairn
    9 years ago
  • sebastian
    How the pottery burned the pot?
    7 years ago

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