Although a holiday, this past Monday definitely was not a quiet day at Archaeology Southwest. The first full day of the Preservation Archaeology Field School kicked off with some introductory lectures and tours. I was fortunate to tag along for a behind-the-scenes look at the Arizona State Museum’s (ASM) Pottery Vault, formally known as the Agnese and Emil Haury Southwest Native Nations Pottery Vault. Patrick Lyons, ASM’s new director and an Archaeology Southwest Research Associate, led the tour for our field school staff and students.
As a self-proclaimed “sherd nerd,” I have admired the Pottery Project, the exhibition supporting the Pottery Vault, since it first opened five years ago. A series of impressive transparent cases—the Arnold and Doris Roland Wall of Pots—illustrates archaeological and contemporary Native American pottery traditions from the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. The amazing pots on public display represent a very small fraction of the more than 20,000 whole ceramic vessels along the shelves of a permanent storage area in the adjacent room, partially visible through large windows. Archaeology Southwest and ASM worked together to create a Virtual Vault that would enable museum visitors and Internet users around the world to view 3-D digital models of the vessels in the physical vault and curatorial information about them. I know I’m not the only one who has stared through those big windows and yearned to go inside for a closer look. Happily, that opportunity came on Monday.
The collection inside the Pottery Vault is astounding, and one of the finest resources for conducting ceramic-focused research in this part of the world. Patrick showed us some of his favorite vessels, and we were able to walk the length of the aisles and really get a sense of the beauty and diversity of pottery in the Southwest. One of my favorites was an amazing Cliff Polychrome bowl from Kinishba Pueblo, made between about A.D. 1350 and 1450. The interesting design on the exterior of the bowl really gives you the sense that the vessel is looking right back at you. (And Archaeology Southwest Magazine readers will recognize the serpent-head imagery.) We also saw some amazing contemporary pottery, including a set of beautiful black-on-black dinner plates made by the famous San Ildefonso ceramic artist Maria Martinez, along with her husband Julian, in the early twentieth century. As this picture shows, they were actually used quite a bit. I can’t even imagine eating off a plate made by such a famous potter.
This tour was an ideal first-day activity for the Preservation Archaeology Field School. Seeing this incredible exhibition and collection really highlighted the great potential for research focused on existing collections—one of the tenets of Preservation Archaeology. Furthermore, it is wonderful that the students were able to see these exquisite objects in the context of a working museum, and even meet its incoming director. Patrick showed us several projects in progress, and discussed some of the major challenges facing museums today, including repatriating human remains and sacred objects to descendant native communities, managing collections, and balancing the needs of researchers and the public. It is important to consider these various issues and perspectives before heading to the field, and Patrick’s tour did a great job of opening the discussion.