Department of Anthropology University of Pittsburgh
Anthropology 1548 – Amazonian Arts: Making and Meaning
Pitt in Ecuador
Dr. Kathleen M. S. Allen, ; Dr. Tod Swanson,
Office hours will be posted for this course, and instructors are available by appointment.
Content, purposes, and methods of this course:
This course introduces students to the arts of the Amazonian region in the context of their function and meaning. The course will be taught as a combination of lecture and hands-on experience working with Native potters from the Bobonaza River. Students will learn to make pottery in the Kichwa (Quichua) tradition, and to understand the role of pottery and material culture in the daily lives of people in this region. On a number of occasions, students will accompany the Native potters on journeys into the adjacent forest to gather materials and to study the patterns in nature that inspire them. Here students will observe related arts such as face paint patterns, beaded ornaments, ritual singing and storytelling. Carefully selected readings and lectures will use these arts as a window for exploring Amazonian thinking about the natural world behind the designs, and the ways in which the designs can be used to understand patterns of social interaction. Interviews with potters will aid in understanding these arts in the context of daily and ceremonial life. In the process, the arts become a doorway allowing the student to explore Amazonian culture and environment first hand. Comparative material from several other world regions will also be discussed.
Objectives and outcomes:
This course introduces students to Amazonian pottery and artistic traditions set within the context of pottery as a longstanding Native tradition. The course has three interrelated learning objectives:
1. To provide an anthropological perspective on Native people of the Upper Amazon, their material arts, and world view;
2. To provide a context for the development of tools and skills so that students learn to create and decorate pottery using techniques and designs with the guidance of Kichwa artists;
3. To explain how a holistic, analytical, and comparative framework leads to greater understanding of continuity and change in artistic and material culture.
Through lectures, field trips, and experience practicing within the tradition of local artists, students learning outcomes are:
To understand the physical and cultural contexts of Amazonian culture and their worldview,
To understand the mythic and ceremonial context of Amazonian ceramic art,
To gain proficiency in making ceramic vessels in an Amazonian style,
To understand traditional and contemporary contexts of Amazonian art.
II. Course structure and organization:
This course relies on a combination of lectures, demonstrations, field trips, readings, and written assignments to introduce students to the artistic traditions of the upper Amazon and to immerse themselves in the practice of pottery making.
The course will be divided into four units, each corresponding to one week of the Amazon and Andes Field School (June 5 to June 29). The course will meet a total of 40 hours for in-class lecture, discussion, and hands-on work, with an additional 20 hours of field visits and continued practice in making pottery. Prior to our first day of scheduled courses at Iyarina, we will visit the Museo Casa del Alabado (the Pre-Columbian Art Museum) in Quito to examine the variety of pottery and arts from the highlands and lowlands of South America.
Week 1: (8 hours of in-class lecture, discussion, demonstration and 7 hours of field visits)
This unit provides an overview of Amazonian ecology and beliefs, along with an introduction to the properties of clay and the forms of Amazonian pottery.
Week 2: (9 hours of in-class lecture, discussion, demonstration, practice, and 6 hours of field visits)
This unit focuses on understanding the organization of pottery production within the domestic context, the variety of designs that are incorporated into pottery, their sources within the natural world, and the stories associated with those designs.
Week 3: (11 hours of in-class lecture, discussion, demonstration, practice, and 4 hours of field visits)
This unit focuses on the use of color in pottery design and examines other kinds of Amazonian art including feather ornaments, face-paint design, and visionary art.
Week 4: (11 hours of in-class lecture, discussion, demonstration, practice, and 4 hours of field visits)
This unit provides comparative material for understanding Amazonian pottery and aesthetics in a broader comparative context. Comparisons with arts made in the South American highlands and in the American Southwest will provide a broader understanding of aesthetic viewpoints and practical contingencies in creating pottery art.
Presentations will be on a variety of topics including those listed below:
The formation of an expert potter: oral autobiographies of the native artists
Lyrical beauty: Singing and ceramic art
Feather ornaments and a body shared with birds
Face paint designs create a body shared with nature
Minimalism and perspective in Amazonian verbal art
Quichua/Shuar thinking on beauty and the emotions 2 (Llakichina/ Empathy)
Quichua/Shuar thinking on the role of beauty in healing and the avoidance of anger
Ituk and Manduru - Women who became the black paint tree and the red paint tree
The woman who became pottery glaze
Cicada woman: the model for ceramic skill
The capuchin monkey’s wife as a model for ceramic skill
The mother of clay in Kichwa/Shuar origin stories
Drinking bowls and ritual hospitality
Ayawaska and Amazonian visionary art
Excerpts from classic ethnographies:
2005 The Napo Runa of Amazonian Ecuador. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Whitten, Dorothea S. and Norman E. Whitten, Jr.
1988 From myth to creation: Art from Amazonian Ecuador. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Whitten, Norman E. Jr
1976 Sacha Runa: Ethnicity and Adaptation of Ecuadorian Jungle Quichua. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Whitten, Norman E. and Dorothea S. Whitten
2008 Puyo Runa: Imagery and Power in Modern Amazonia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Belaunde, Luisa Elvira
2000 The convivial self and the fear of anger amongst the Airo-Pai of Amazonian Peru. In Joanna Overing and Alan Passes eds., The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia, Routledge: London. Pp 46-63.
2000 Helplessness – the affective preconditions of Piro social life”. In Joanna Overing and Alan Passes eds., The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia, Routledge: London. Pp 46-63.
Lagrou, Elsje Maria
2000 Homesickness and the Cashinahua self". In Joanna Overing and Alan Passes eds., The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia, pp 152-169. Routledge: London.
2011 Japanese Aesthetics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
Nuckolls, Janis B. and Swanson, Tod D.
2014 Earthy Concreteness and Anti-Hypotheticalism in Amazonian Quichua Discourse. Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America: Vol. 12: Iss. 1, Article 4, 48-60. Available at:
Swanson, Tod D.
2009 Singing to Estranged Relatives: Quichua Relations to Plants in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Journal of Religion and Culture Vol. 3.1:36-65.
Ethnoarchaeology and archaeology:
Andrea Silva, Fabiola
2008 Ceramic Technology of the Asurini do Xingu, Brazil: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Artifact Variability. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 15:217-265.
2000 From Pottery to Politics: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Political Factionalism, Ethnicity, and Domestic Pottery Style in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 7:210-248.
Bowser, Brenda and John Q. Patton
2004 Domestic Spaces as Public Places: An Ethnoarchaeological Case Study of Houses, Gender, and Politics in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11:157-181.
2008 Women’s Life Histories and Communities of Practice in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In Cultural Transmission and Material Culture: Breaking Down Boundaries, edited by M. T. Stark, B.J. Bowser, and L. Horne. University of Arizona Press. Pp. 105-129.
Mills, Barbara J.
1999 Ceramics and the Social Contexts of Food Consumption in the Northern Southwest. In Pottery and People: A Dynamic Interaction, ed. J. M. Skibo and G.M. Feinman. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. Pp. 99-114.
Minar, C. Jill and Patricia L. Crown
2001 Learning and Craft Production: An Introduction. Journal of Anthropological Research 57(4):369-380.
Crown, Patricia L.
1999 Socialization in American Southwest Pottery Decoration. In Pottery and People: A Dynamic Interaction, ed. J. M. Skibo and G.M. Feinman. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. Pp. 25-43.
2001 Learning to Make Pottery in the Prehispanic American Southwest. Journal of Anthropological Research 57(4):451-469.
Chavez, Karen L. Mohr
1992 The Organization of Production and Distribution of Traditional Pottery in South Highland Peru. In Ceramic Production and Distribution: An Integrated Approach, edited by C. Pool and G. Bey. Westview Press, Boulder, CO. Pp. 49-92.
Stark, Miriam T.
1999 Social Dimensions of Technical Choice in Kalinga Ceramic Tradition. In Material Meanings: Critical Approaches to the Interpretation of Material Culture, ed. E. S. Chilton, pp.24-43. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
2003 Women Potters: Transforming Traditions. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
2001 Learning How to Make the Right Pots: Apprenticeship Strategies and Material Culture, A Case Study in Handmade Pottery from Cameroon. Journal of Anthropological Research 57(4):471-493.
Course Requirements: Assignments and grading
Class participation (25%): Students are expected to keep up with readings, attend classes and fieldtrips, practice making pottery, and engage in class discussions of readings and fieldtrips.
Journaling (25%): Students will keep a journal that reflects the teaching of the native potters, both in the practice of pottery manufacture, and in the meanings of pottery designs and their association with the natural world. They will also document their progress in pottery production. Short journal assignments in which students are asked to integrate readings with their participation will also be required. Each student will be expected to submit five 3 to 5 page analytic journal entries during the course.
Practicum (10%): Each student will take an oral exam where they will be asked to discuss the pottery they have produced and the meanings of the designs placed on it.
Final essay exam/paper (40%): Each student will develop a six to eight page paper on a topic that comes directly from some aspect of the program. Essays will draw on the readings, material presented in lectures, field trips, and demonstrations, and will include additional material drawn from either the students interaction with the Native potters, or from the trip to the Pre-Columbian Art Museum in Quito.
Academic Integrity Policy: Cheating/plagiarism will not be tolerated. Students suspected of violating the University of Pittsburgh Policy on Academic Integrity, noted below, will be required to participate in the outlined procedural process as initiated by the instructor. A minimum sanction of a zero score for the quiz, exam or paper will be imposed. (For the full academic Integrity policy, go to
E-mail Communication Policy: Each student is issued a University e-mail address (email@example.com) upon admittance. This e-mail address may be used by the University for official communication with students. Students are expected to read e-mail sent to this account on a regular basis. Failure to read and react to University communications in a timely manner does not absolve the student from knowing and complying with the content of the communications. The University provides an e-mail forwarding service that allows students to read their e-mail via other service providers (e.g., Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo). Students that choose to forward their e-mail from their pitt.edu address to another address do so at their own risk. If e-mail is lost as a result of forwarding, it does not absolve the student from responding to official communications sent to their University e-mail address. To forward e-mail sent to your University account, go to http://accounts.pitt.edu, log into your account, click on Edit Forwarding Addresses, and follow the instructions on the page. Be sure to log out of your account when you have finished. (For the full E-mail Communication Policy, go to
Attendance: You are expected to attend all classes. Attendance is required for satisfactory progress through the course. If you are unable to attend a class, please notify me in advance.
Make-up work/Late penalties: You are expected to turn in all assignments by their due date. Late assignments will be marked down 2 points for every day they are late. Please contact your instructor if you foresee any difficulty in meeting assignment deadlines.
Writing Center: Make use of the services of the Writing Center to improve your writing skills.
Disability Resources and Services: "If you have a disability for which you are or may be requesting an accommodation, you are encouraged to contact both your instructor and the Office of Disability Resources and Services, 140 William Pitt Union, 412-648-7890/412-624-3346 (Fax), as early as possible in the term. Disability Resources and Services will verify your disability and determine reasonable accommodations for this course."
The integrity of the academic process requires fair and impartial evaluation on the part of faculty and honest academic conduct on the part of students. To this end, students are expected to conduct themselves at a high level of responsibility in the fulfillment of the course of their study. It is the corresponding responsibility of faculty to make clear to students those standards by which students will be evaluated, and the resources available for use by students during the course of their study and evaluation. The educational process is perceived as a joint faculty-student enterprise which will perforce involve professional judgment by faculty and may involve – without penalty – reasoned exception by students to the data or views offered by faculty. Senate Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom, February 1974.