Well before Europeans reached this continent, Native peoples in many parts of Canada had mastered the art of producing durable, functional, and beautiful ceramic containers.

The manufacture of ceramic containers requires an intricate knowledge of a complex technology. Pottery-making is foremost an understanding of material properties and the control of their modification through the application of heat.

The earliest ceramics in Canada were made in the northern Yukon more than 3,500 years ago, within sight of the Arctic Ocean. That Siberian-inspired Palaeoeskimo pottery tradition, however, did not spread to more southern regions. The origins of the Aboriginal earthenware industry found south of Canada's Arctic regions can be traced to the culturally rich lands draining into the valley of the Mississippi River. More than 2,500 years ago, ceramic pots appeared at many locations in southern Canada and gave rise to a number of distinct regional traditions. Ceramics were only one component in a much larger pulse of cultural influence emanating from the North American heartland.

Ceramic pots served many purposes, but the most important was surely the preparation and cooking of food. As they were drawn to the warm fire of a hearth, people would regularly gather around the pot to share not only food, but also stories and information, laughter and sorrow. If only these pots could speak, what stories they would tell!

Some of these stories are still within our reach. Decorations, for example, function as symbols that reveal the ceramic artisan's sense of group belonging. Not chosen at random, they are the result of a purposeful selection and arrangement of design elements and motifs. Today the study of these symbols helps us to understand the relationships between people, villages, and regions in the past.

To learn more about the fascinating diversity and richness of Native ceramic making traditions in Canada, choose a topic below:

A virtual exhibit tour Who made them?
All sizes and shapes How old are they?
Pottery-making techniques Conserving ceramic treasures
The background illustration Acknowledgements

The sketch used as a background on this page was done by André Michel.

Texts, artifact photos and production: Jean-Luc Pilon

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