When I was a kid growing up in the Denver area, I loved going to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS). There, I could see fantastic nature dioramas, rooms full of dinosaur skeletons, and Egyptian mummies. Now that I’m back in Colorado, my son and I frequent the museum’s paleontology and space exhibits. If you’ve spent any time in the Denver area, you’ve probably been to the DMNS, too—it’s a significant destination.
What most visitors don’t know—and even I didn’t, until fairly recently—is that the DMNS also curates a large collection of precontact Southwestern pottery (archaeological ceramics dating before the arrival of Europeans). I learned about this collection when Curator of Archaeology Steve Nash asked me, as a ceramics expert, to review and correct ware and type identifications of some of the whole vessels. Of course, I said “Yes!”
(To facilitate comparisons, archaeologists use certain terms to classify Southwestern pottery. “Wares” represent technological traditions—how a pot was made, and with what materials—that are associated with groups of people in different places. A “type” is a subdivision that indicates a particular style or design configuration. These usually reflect change through time.)
Like many museum collections, the DMNS Southwestern pottery collection has grown through numerous donations by private collectors over many decades. Thus, the accuracy and completeness of information associated with many of the items is sometimes, errrrr, less than ideal. Dr. Nash would like to have this information verified and updated so that the collection can become more useful for research and education. Knowing the potential of legacy collections such as this, I’m really pleased to help with the project.
For a few hours each week, longtime DMNS Anthropology volunteer Larry Harvey and I work in the collections storage area. (Oh, if my girlhood self could see me now, working behind the scenes in such a place!) The collection of about 800 whole vessels is housed in enormous steel cabinets, some of which require a tall ladder to access—and extreme caution when removing vessels. Larry and I examine each vessel, checking it against our master inventory, and then we record baseline information—vessel ware, type, culture of origin, and manufacturing dates—into an Excel spreadsheet that we have created. Eventually, this information will be added to the collections database, as well as to the DMNS image archives. Images of some of the whole vessels may be found here.
Here are some examples of interesting vessels I’ve encountered so far: