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What is an Olla?

By Rebecca Cartwright
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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An olla is a type of ceramic container with relatively thin sides, a round body and a smaller neck. Usually unglazed, ollas can be used for cooking, storage and irrigation. The word "olla" is Spanish, but Native Americans of the American Southwest made and used pottery jars of this type before the arrival of the Spanish.

Ollas make good cooking pots for beans, stews and other foods that require long cooking times. The thin sides allow the pot to respond quickly to changes in temperature while the shape retains moisture in the food. Ollas are traditional cooking vessels in Mexico, where cooking ollas are usually glazed and may be decorated.

In the southwestern U.S., ollas were a traditional way of carrying and storing water and were also used for cooking and irrigation. Traditional potters used the coil method to make ollas rather than throwing them on a pottery wheel. Potters often made the base of the ollas slightly concave so those carrying water could easily rest the pots on their heads. These pots were not glazed but were often painted with decorative designs before firing. Some ollas of the American Southwest were dried in the sun instead of being fired in a kiln.

Unglazed pottery makes a good water storage container, because moisture sweats through the clay. The sweating lowers the temperature inside the vessel and cools the water. This same sweating is what makes ollas suitable for irrigation, and it is as irrigation devices that ollas are increasingly used in contemporary society. Ollas used for irrigation typically have narrower necks than cooking ollas and remain largely undecorated.

An olla buried in soil and filled with water allows the water to slowly seep into the surrounding area. Plant roots near the pot grow toward the source of the water, making it even easier for the olla to keep them supplied with moisture. People setting up a garden irrigated by ollas tend to cluster the plants around each olla. It is best if the plants in each cluster have similar water requirements.

Those using ollas for irrigation choose a pot size suitable for the size of the plants that will grow near it. Larger plants will need a larger pot. The gardener buries the olla in the ground, leaving the top of the neck above the surface so more water can be added when necessary. The visible part of the neck sometimes has painted or incised designs on it.

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Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On Jan 04, 2012

My grandmother had a beautiful pair of olla jars she bought in Mexico. They weren't glazed, I think, but had scratched in patterns which had a whitish surface to them.

She quite treasured them and told me that she bought them from a woman who made them and actually got to see some of the process as well.

They weren't made on a potter's wheel which you might expect considering how symmetrical they were.

The woman had made them in the traditional fashion, which was using coils of clay that were smoothed with the fingers.

It made me want to try my hand at making pottery one day myself.

By pleonasm — On Jan 03, 2012

It's surprising how cool water can get if it is left in hot sunshine in an unglazed pot. I've never experienced this in South America, where the olla is from, but I've used similar jars in Africa, so the practice is known throughout the world.

It might have just been because I was always so hot there, but the water kept in those jars seemed to become just about as cold as it would be straight from a fridge.

It also made a convenience place to store things that needed to be kept cool. An olla looks like it would be just the right shape for this too. Just fill the bottom of one with water, then dump in enough sand to make a dry resting place for whatever you want to store.

The water will evaporate and keep the jar cool. Actually evaporation is how most fridges work anyway, so this isn't much different.

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