Arizona State Museum Pottery Collection

Last November I took a trip to Tucson and stopped in at the Arizona State Museum (“ASM”) to view some ceramics in the back stacks. (Remember when life was like that – going someplace that just interested you?) I met with Todd Pitezel, Associate Curator of the Archaeological Collections at the Museum. I reached out to Todd to discuss the ASM’s collection and some of his experiences as curator.

JW: I was really impressed with the Arizona State Museum’s collection of pottery. Is this collection viewable online?

TP: The Arizona State Museum currently does not have its collection available online at the object level. There is a 3-D virtual tour of the Pottery Vault at https://statemuseum.arizona.edu/online-exhibits (best viewed on Google Maps by clicking image directly below):

Click image to activate 3-D virtual tour in Google Maps

There’s also this YouTube video tour of the ASM collection.

JW: Todd, will you give me a snapshot of your background?

TP: I received a Masters from the University of Tulsa in 1997. During my time at TU, I became interested in the archaeology of Chihuahua, Mexico, specially the Casas Grandes culture and wrote a thesis on Casas Grandes plain and textured pottery typology. I went on to the University of Arizona and completed my PhD in 2011. My dissertation work focused on the only residential hill site in the Casas Grandes area between AD 1200 and 1450. I joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 2010.

JW: You’re the Associate Curator, Archeological Collections at the Arizona State Museum. What does that involve?

TP: In general, my administrative duty as associate curator is the care and management of cataloged objects in ASM’s collections. I oversee collections storage and requests for access to collections. In addition, the duty includes studying the collections, which I have started by using the ASM’s whole pottery vessels from the Casas Grandes Viejo period (AD 600-AD 1200). As a member of the faculty I also conduct original research; provide university and state service through, for example, committee work; and engage in outreach with students and the public, mostly through tours and collections access — such as yourself.

JW: Can you tell me what you find particularly interesting about the ceramics from the Paquime/Casas Grandes?

TP: Currently, I am studying the pottery from the Casas Grandes Viejo period (AD 600-AD 1200). A major influence of thought about the transition from the Viejo period to the Medio period (AD 1200-AD 1450) has been interaction stemming from west coast Mexico people, or Mesoamerica, into the Casas Grandes area.

Photography from: Mapping the ancient city of Paquimé with drones, https://www.pix4d.com/blog/mapping-the-ancient-city-of-paquime

It was broadly an architectural shift from subterranean wattle-and-daub structures to surface adobe structures and, in ceramics, from primarily red-on-brown painted pottery to a plethora of multicolored-painted pottery. To be sure, there are noticeable influences from Mesoamerica. A second theory sees migrants from the northern southwest United States causing the changes between the Casas Grandes Viejo and Medio periods. There isn’t much evidence for such a migration. Finally, a third general theory is that the changes were locally produced, albeit with influences. That is why I and my research colleague, Dr. Michael Searcy from Brigham Young University have engaged in a long-term research program to, hopefully, unravel the scenarios.

While Dr. Searcy and I have general goals in mind, my specific interest is the painted designs on Viejo and Medio period pottery. There is clearly Mesoamerican “ideas” painted on later Medio period pottery, the early Medio period pottery designs appear to indicate a continuity from the Viejo period to the Medio period. There are painted elements, single strokes with the paint brush, to combined elements as motifs on Viejo and Medio period pottery that are clearly similar, if not identical.

Imagine if the painted designs on pottery indicated, said, or meant something to the makers and users of the pottery. Archaeologists think so, in some cases. Imagine again that the painted designs pertained to a world view, outlook, or identity. Archaeologists think so, in some cases. Why would the painted designs, or meaning, stay the same if the world view or outlook or identity changed because of outside intruders, migrants, or otherwise? It seems to me that the similarity of the designs between Viejo period pottery and early Medio period pottery indicate a continuity between the two Casas Grandes periods. That is exciting!

JW: Where can someone see examples of these ceramics?

TP: There are numerous museums around the world that hold Casas Grandes collections. Museums in the southwest United States and northern Mexico would be the ideal places. The Arizona State Museum has the largest collection outside of Mexico. I have not seen but know of a collection at the Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton, Oklahoma. And, of course, there images on the Internet (for example, see the Casas Grandes Pottery site at University of Texas at El Paso Centennial Museum).

JW: I believe the Casas Grandes culture emerged a bit later than some cultures to the north that also have impressive ceramic traditions (e.g., Hohokam, Mogollan, Anasazi). Are there strong links between the ceramics of these various cultures?

TP: People first lived in the Casas Grandes area, in pre-pottery times, from about 1500-700 BC. There is no evidence of habitation again until about AD 600. The early painted pottery in the Casas Grandes is similar to types in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico in that they are primarily red designs painted on a brown-fired body. The tradition expands into more color about AD 1200. Then about AD 1300 the painted imagery looks influenced by Mesoamerican ideas.

JW: Where can someone learn more about ceramic traditions of Northern Mexico/Southwestern US?

TP: Online sources include:

JW: When I met you at the Arizona State Museum, you told me that a big museum effort is cataloging and documenting ceramics before they are returned to tribes. Can you tell me a little about that?

TP: I was referring to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA; https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm) that is federal law requiring federal agencies and museums to document and return human remains, artifacts associated with human remains, and sacred objects to a claimant tribe. The Arizona State Museum was a pioneer in the law in that the late Dr. Raymond H. Thompson, a former Arizona State Museum director was a participant in its development. Dr. Patrick D. Lyons, current Arizona State Museum Director, just completed a four-year appointment on the NAGPRA Federal Advisory Review Committee (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/review-committee.htm).

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