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1.3: Ancient Art of the 'southwest

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    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    The desert Southwest is home to several cultures whose ancient legacies of architecture, pottery, and religious practice have been well preserved. Ancient peoples of this region were farmers, who coaxed corn, beans, and squash from an arid land. In their worldview, this cultivation depended on careful plant selection as well as an elaborate ceremonial system focused on seasonal changes and petitions to the spirit world for rain. Although agriculturalists, they lived in remarkable multistory apartment compounds, built of ·stone and wood. Their trade network extended to California, Mexico, and the Great Plains. Although there were several regional traditions in ancient Southwestern art, we shall focus on the ancient Anasazi, with a brief look at the painted pottery of their southern neighbors, the Mimbres.

    From Basketmakers to Potters and Architects

    Early southwestern culture is dubbed "Basketmaker" culture (c. 100 B.C.E.-700 C.E.) because its most distinctive art was the weaving and twining of fibers into baskets, clothing, footwear, and other practical items. Woven baskets- as well as pairs of new yucca-fiber sandals for use in the afterlife are found in many burials. Ancient basketry forms include trays, carrying containers, bags, aprons, and watertight baskets lined with pitch. Out of Basketmaker culture arose the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo culture (700-1300 C.E.).

    Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning "enemy ancestors." The later Navajo (on whose land many Anasazi archaeological sites are found) coined this term for the makers of the remarkable architecture existing in their lands, which they recognized had not been made by their own forebears, who arrived in the region after 1300 C.E. The Anasazi were the ancestors of modern Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo peoples; for this reason, this culture is sometimes called ''.Ancestral Pueblo." These ancient people are best known for their architecture and painted pottery, especially from the Great Pueblo period (1050- 1300 C.E.). The superbly crafted baskets and pottery made in this era stand at the beginning of an unbroken tradition that persists today. In recent centuries and probably in ancient times, too-these have generally been the work of Pueblo women. Over generations, women determined which roots and grasses would endure processing without excessive fading and cracking, and they ingeniously combined materials of different properties to serve particular functions: strength for a carrying basket, beauty for a gift basket, watertightness for a food basket. The bilobed basket shown here (fig. 1.16) is technically complex, the patterns of its dyed and coiled fibers relating to painted pottery and walls. It survives in excellent condition because it was preserved in a dry cave.

    Figure 1.15: ANASAZI ARTIST, Olla (jar), northern Arizona, c. II50 C.E. Clay and pigment, 14¼ in (36 cm) diameter. Private Collection.
    Figure 1.15: ANASAZI ARTIST, Olla (jar), northern Arizona, c. 1150 C.E. Clay and pigment, 14¼ in (36 cm) diameter. Private Collection.

    Potters' skills, too, developed over generations of experimentation. The era from 1050 to 1300 c .E. when Anasazi women and their Mimbres neighbors were making finely crafted vessels (see figs. I.IS, 1.19, 1.20), and the era from 1400 to 1600-when the direct ancestors of modern Hopi people developed their painted polychrome vessels (see fig. 1.21)-were high points of artistic achievement. In Anasazi pottery, black-on-white painting was the most widespread and enduring style. Ancient wares were characterized by regional as well as individual diversity. The potter's repertoire included mugs, bowls, seed jars, and animal effigies. The most widely admired form was the wide-shouldered storage jar (called by its Spanish name, olla), painted with semi-abstract designs (fig. 1.15). On this vessel, a triangular maze-like design encircles the small neck. The painting on the rest of the vessel alternates between larger circles divided into quadrants (perhaps a directional referent) and complicated asymmetrical stepped elements. The design field alternates between bold, thick lines and tiny parallel or crosshatched ones. This bold sense of graphic design distinguishes the finest Anasazi pots.

    Figure 1.16: ANASAZI ARTIST, Bi-lobed basket, Anasazi, Mogui Canyon, Utah, C. 1200 C.E. Plant fibers. Museum Photo Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

    Ancient potters used processes and tools similar to ones still in use by their descendants today. They dug the clay from particular sites where the mineralogical properties were right for fine pottery. Then they refined the clay and coiled the pots by hand, using sections of gourd to smooth and shape the walls. Polishing stones were used to rub the surface to a high gloss. Ribs of yucca plants were collected, dried, and chewed to make paintbrushes to paint the fine parallel lines seen so often on these vessels.

    The other enduring achievement of the Ancestral Pueblo people was in architecture. The original architectural form used in the Southwest was a pit house, built partly underground. Its key features included a round room, supporting wooden posts, an entrance hole in the roof, and walls and ceilings of sticks and dried mud plaster. The sipapu, a hole in the floor, symbolized the hole through which-according to a Pueblo origin story still told today- human beings emerged onto the surface of the earth from their previous dark home in the underworld. After 900 c.e., this humble circular room was combined with small rectangular rooms to become the components of the most ambitious houses ever conceived in aboriginal North America: the great apartment compounds and cliff dwellings that, by 1050 c.e., dotted the landscape of the Four Corners region: where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet. In the multiroom, many-storied apartment complexes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the ancestral architectural form-the semi-subterranean pit house with an entrance hole in the roof-survived as a ceremonial enclosure known as a kiva. Some kivas are small and were used primarily for family ritual. Others accommodated scores of people.

    CHACO CANYON. The archaeological site of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, contains nearly three hundred separate apartment compounds within a range of just a few miles: some on the valley floor, others on top of the mesa. Pueblo Bonito, the grandest of these compounds, was built in semicircular form (fig. 1.17). By 1100 C.E., it may have had as many as eight hundred rooms, built five deep and four to five stories in height. Yet Pueblo Bonito was probably not fully given over to living spaces; instead, its three-dozen kivas and its suites of large rooms were used for ceremony and the storage of trade goods. Some of the walls of this building were laid more than a yard thick at ground level, to bear the load of multiple stories. The walls narrowed as they rose. Characteristic of architecture throughout Chaco Canyon, and especially evident at Pueblo Bonito (fig. 1.18), is its construction from precisely fitted horizontal courses of sandstone blocks. In some cases they are aligned in intricate patterns of different sizes, widths, and colors. The sandstone was cut from nearby cliffs, while the wooden beams in the floors and roofs required cutting more than 200,000 trees, some from forests as far as 50 miles away. 

    Figure 1.17: Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, 850-1150 C.E
    Figure 1.17: Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, 850-1150 C.E
    Figure 1.18: Door alignments, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, c. 1100 C.E. Courtesy Janet Catherine Berlo
    Figure 1.18: Door alignments, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, c. 1100 C.E. Courtesy Janet Catherine Berlo

    One noteworthy architectural feature found at Pueblo Bonito and elsewhere at Chaco is the "Great Kiva," a type of building that has been called a "ritual theater" because its size and grandeur suggest this function. Some Great Kivas were as much as 60 feet in diameter. Spectators would flank the walls, while ritual performers danced in the center. Great Kivas were oriented to the cardinal directions; for this reason they have been called architectural versions of cosmic maps and metaphors of an ideal universe. At one Great Kiva, Casa Rinconada, the sun shone into a window precisely at the summer solstice, serving to mark the date when particular ceremonies were to be conducted.

    In fact, the whole apartment compound of Pueblo Bonito is itself aligned to the skies: on the equinoxes, the sun rises and sets in perfect alignment with its southern wall. Ancient Pueblo astronomers also used the walls of cliffs to record astronomical data. High on Fajada Butte, in Chaco Canyon, daggers of sunlight project through thin cracks between slabs of sandstone onto a spiral figure incised on the opposite rock wall. The light illuminates different points in the spiral at the solstices and equinoxes.

    The inhabitants of Chaco also made good use of the practical aspects of the sun, harnessing solar power to heat their apartment complexes. Because these dwellings had no windows, apart from the roof opening, they resisted extremes of temperature. In winter, when the sun is low in the sky, the sandstone walls absorb heat during the day and release it at ·night, keeping the rooms much warmer than the cold desert air outside.

    Encompassing dozens of separate apartment compounds, Chaco Canyon probably served as a ceremonial center as well as the hub of a great interregional economy. Over the roads radiating out from Chaco (some extending in straight lines for more than 50 miles) came trade goods, including marine shells from the Gulf of California, copper bells and tropical birds from Mexico. These found their way into the ceremonial finery worn by living people, as well as burials of the honored dead.

    Anasazi architecture gives visual form to a communal organization that survives among Pueblo peoples even today. Clusters of small rooms are punctuated by larger spaces, both private and public. Enclosed subterranean spaces would have been used for family or clan-based rituals, while open plazas suggest that a thousand years ago, as today, to gather publicly and dance for the gods was a fundamental part of being Puebloan. Ancient astronomers at Chaco, like those at Cahokia and elsewhere in the east, also used their observational powers to predict the seasons and to time the ceremonies that were crucial to maintaining the proper relationships between humans and supernatural beings.

    Mimbres Painted Pottery

    Figure 1.19: MIMBRES ARTIST, Bowl with mountain sheep, Mattocks Site, ew Mexico, c. 1200 C.E. Clay and pigment. Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, New Mexico.
    Figure 1.19: MIMBRES ARTIST, Bowl with mountain sheep, Mattocks Site, ew Mexico, c. 1200 C.E. Clay and pigment. Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, New Mexico.
    Figure 1.20: MIMBRES ARTIST, Bowl with Koshare figure, Pruitt Site, New Mexico, c. 1200 C.E. Clay and pigment, 4¼ in high X 9¼ in (10.8 X 23.5 cm). Taylor Museum, Colorado Springs Pine Art Center.
    Figure 1.20: MIMBRES ARTIST, Bowl with Koshare figure, Pruitt Site, New Mexico, c. 1200 C.E. Clay and pigment, 4¼ in high X 9¼ in (10.8 X 23.5 cm). Taylor Museum, Colorado Springs Pine Art Center.

    During the same decades that Ancestral Pueblo potters were perfecting their fine-line geometric painting, their Mimbres neighbors to the south were painting both geometric and figural designs in the interiors of hemispheric bowls. Although Mimbres pottery was made for over 500 years (600 to 1150 c .E.), its artistic high point occurred in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Mimbres bowls were hand coiled, smoothed, and shaped, and then painted on the interior before firing. More than ten thousand of these bowlshave been found; some feature geometric designs and fineline painting reminiscent of Anasazi work, while others use a figurative vocabulary expressing a relationship to the natural and supernatural worlds, while reducing animal shapes to their sparest recognizable forms. Animals such as mountain sheep (fig. 1.19), bats, and rabbits appear on Mimbres pots, as do composite mythological beings. The black-and-white-striped masked figure (fig. 1.20) suggests that aspects of Mimbres culture were absorbed into Pueblo culture, for this striped figure appears in modern ritual and art as a Pueblo clown (see fig. 2.30, Koshares of Taos). The Mimbres people almost certainly had contact with more distant cultures: images on their pots also suggest links with ancient Mexico.

    These pots also reveal something of the Mimbres' beliefs about the afterlife. Most of them have been found in burials beneath the floors of simple one-story apartments. Usually inverted over the head of the corpse and stacked in groups, most are punctured at the very bottom where the first tiny coil was shaped to begin forming the vessel (see fig. 1.20). Called by archaeologists the "kill hole," this renders the vessel unusable in this world, but implies a spiritual use. Modern Pueblo people describe the sky as a dome that rests upon the earth like an inverted bowl that can be pierced to allow passage between different worlds. The Pueblo belief about human emergence from a hole in the ground onto the surface of the earth also reflects this idea of permeable boundaries between worlds. By placing their painted and pierced "domes" over the heads of the dead, the Mimbres people may have been expressing in tangible form their beliefs about the travel of the deceased into the spirit world, just as modern Pueblo people describe the transformation of the dead into spirit beings and clouds in the dome of the sky.2

    Art and Cultural Change in the Protohistoric Period: Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma

    A severe drought in the twelfth century may have triggered the collapse of the complex economy centered at Chaco Canyon. Many sites were abandoned, and new, smaller, regional sites appeared, particularly along the Rio Grande, where water was more plentiful. Soon thereafter, the communities of Hopi, Acoma, and Zuni began to develop in what is today northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, gradually becoming the centers of Pueblo life and art. Pueblo oral histories that recount ancient migrations in search of a new homeland are almost certainly recalling the migrations of this late precontact period.

    Like Mimbres pottery, fourteenth-century shrine figures discovered in a cave in the Mimbres region (p. 2) demonstrate the persistence and prevalence of ritual beliefs in the Southwest. Two painted figures ( one made of stone and one of wood), smaller wooden snake or lightning figures, and other emblems suggest rituals like those still performed today in the Native villages of northern Arizona and New Mexico. These figures seem to be prototypes for Hopi and Zuni spirit figures in painted wood (see fig. 9.29, kachina figure). The placement of these stone figures in a cave reflects an abiding interest in cosmological order, in mapping the world, and in venerating sacred places in the landscape. Pueblo people today continue to use sacred shrines at caves, mountains, and lakes.

    Figure 1.21: ANCIENT HOPI ARTIST, Sikyatki polychrome jar, Northeastern Arizona, c. 1450-1500 C.E. Clay and pigment, 8¼ in high x 14½ in diameter (22 x 37.8 cm). Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York. Thaw Collection
    Figure 1.21: ANCIENT HOPI ARTIST, Sikyatki polychrome jar, Northeastern Arizona, c. 1450-1500 C.E. Clay and pigment, 8¼ in high x 14½ in diameter (22 x 37.8 cm). Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York. Thaw Collection

    While many of the earlier vessels in both the Mimbres and Anasazi traditions were painted simply black and white, late prehistoric Hopi pottery is polychrome (multicolored). Sikyatki polychrome pottery (named for a Hopi site) was meticulously hand polished using smooth stones, and painted in rich earth pigments, ranging from yellow and orange to umber and black (fig. 1.21). The women who painted these pots used designs that ranged from simple geometric motifs ( dots, dashes, triangles, and stepped forms) to semi-representational designs that reference earth, clouds, sky, rain, spirit beings, and animal forms. Such iconographic elements persist in Pueblo pottery and painting in the modern era (see fig. 15.16, Koshare on Rainbow).

    The elegant widemouthed jar is painted on its shoulder, while the base of the jar is the simple biscuit-color of the clay. The line encircling the mouth of the jar (and another, unseen in this photograph, which divides the shoulder from the base) has a break, a feature of some modern Pueblo pottery, where it is said to represent the sipapu, or place of emergence from the underworld, also found in ancient Pueblo architecture. Perhaps even in ancient times these vessels, made from the clay body of "mother earth," were conceptualized as miniature painted worlds. Used in ceremony, they were also used in daily life, to contain nourishment for the body-like the earth itself. The painted designs on the shoulder of the vessel repeat four times with subtle differences as they rotate around the jar. Painted freehand with great skill, they seem to represent semi-abstract birds with curled wing feathers and straight tail feathers.

    By the sixteenth century, Pueblo life was flourishing at Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and numerous small villages along the Rio Grande. Pueblo people had, in the last four hundred years, weathered drought, warfare, and migrations. But their biggest challenge was soon to come-in the form of an armed band of Spaniards who had set forth from Mexico City looking for fabled "cities of gold" in the desert Southwest.

    This page titled 1.3: Ancient Art of the 'southwest is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.

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