(March 3, 2023)—A few years ago I shared thoughts and information as I began a journey into the world of Patayan pottery, namely the “Lower Colorado Buff Ware” (LCBW) associated with ancestral Yuman tribes of the lower Gila and lower Colorado River valleys. “Where’s the buff?” I asked.
Well, after more than four years and an intensive field program, during which I and four amazing Kwatsaan field assistants inventoried and analyzed more than 12,000 sherds as part of the Lower Gila River Ethnographic and Archaeological Project (LGREAP), I have some answers.
Often I find myself too busy to reflect on the work I’ve been doing, generally because I’m balancing multiple projects and always thinking about future research questions and programs. I was able to put that all on pause last Friday at the fourth installment of the Lower Colorado Buff Ware Workshop. My previous “Buff” blog post was actually sparked by the Workshop’s first gathering, so it seems an apt time to share my latest head-scratching over this pottery.
The Lower Colorado Buff Ware Workshop is a casual gathering of researchers who meet twice a year with the primary goal of advancing research on Patayan ceramics. Participants have included professionals from Tribes, cultural resource management firms, nonprofits, museums, federal agencies, and avocational archaeologists from Arizona, California, and Nevada. Missing from this eclectic group have been university professors and students—but that’s another story.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Workshop had convened three times in Wellton, Arizona—a sort of center point on the spatial distribution of LCBW near the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. At the third meeting, in October 2019, the group discussed the possibility of holding the next session at the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), situated at the extreme eastern edge of LCBW’s range, at the invitation of the ceramic analysts with the GRIC Cultural Resource Management Program (CRMP). That, of course, failed to materialize as the country shut down in response the virus’s rapid, deadly, and unpredictable spread.
As the years passed, some of us wondered whether we’d ever have another Workshop, and if so, what that would look like. In the fall of 2022, I traveled to Sacaton, Arizona, to visit with GRIC CRMP staff regarding a lower Gila obsidian-sourcing project we’ve been collaborating on. While there, I broached the idea of reconvening the Workshop and picking up where we left off—by holding it at GRIC. After passing the idea up the chain of command, GRIC CRMP staff notified me in late 2022 that the request was approved and we just needed to settle on a date that worked best for everyone. That was this past Friday, February 24, 2023.
For me, February 24 began by carpooling to the Chevron station at the intersection of Casa Blanca Road and Interstate 10. This was the rendezvous point where a group of us Tucsonans, several staff from Pueblo Grande Museum, a couple from Ajo, and an assistant research professor from Arizona State University met up with GRIC CRMP staff for a visit to Sacate, an Akimel O’Odham village near the western end of GRIC. Although relatively quiet today, Sacate was a bustling settlement when Eusebio Kino and company visited in the final years of the 1600s. GRIC CRMP staff, who have conducted a great deal of field work there over the years, shared that they believed Sacate was already an old settlement by the time of Kino’s visit, and had probably been established in the early part of the 1600s, or even earlier.
Several GRIC CRMP staff shared that one thing they appreciate about Sacate, and something that makes it somewhat unique for sites on GRIC, is that it does not have a substantial earlier Hohokam component. Many settlements on GRIC contain material for the Hohokam archaeological era underlying and intermixed with later archaeological signatures. This is evidence for a cultural continuum, but it complicates their ability to examine the pivotal “transition to history,” so to speak—the couple of centuries when the nucleated Hohokam lifestyle gave way to the ranchería way of life the earliest European visitors observed among the Akimel O’Odham and their Piipaash neighbors. Sacate therefore provides a clearer picture of Akimel O’Odham life in the 1600s and 1700s than most other sites.
But what does the O’Odham settlement of Sacate have to do with Yuman-made LCBW? Well, being situated near the western edge of GRIC, Sacate is in close proximity to a series of Piipaash settlements located a little farther downstream and nearer the confluence of the Gila and Salt Rivers. As I reviewed in the Great Bend of the Gila Ethnographic Study, many of the Piipaash and Xalychidom—Yuman-speaking communities from the lower Gila and lower Colorado Rivers—moved to the middle Gila River in the 1700s and early 1800s and settled along the western front of the Akimel O’Odham heartland. Whether these migrants founded the Piiipaash villages downstream of Sacate or merely added to their numbers remains in question, but it is clear these Yuman communities brought their pottery-making traditions with them. And some of their pottery seems to have made its way to Sacate.
While visiting the ancestral O’Odham settlement, I saw some examples of pottery I would classify as LCBW if I were to find them along the lower Gila River, the former Piipaash heartland. Certainly the vast majority of the pottery at Sacate conforms with known O’Odham types and attests to its O’Odham origins, but this small percentage of possible LCBW raised some key questions. Did it get to Sacate through trade? And, if so, was it an economic relationship with their immediate Piipaash neighbors, from Yuman potters farther afield, or both? Were some Piipaash actually living at Sacate and contributing to the community in more than economic ways?
Adding to my puzzlement were highly tempered, brown-paste sherds characteristic of early O’Odham utility wares, but with a stucco application. As I’ve explained elsewhere, this ceramic surface treatment, used to increase vessel use-life and performance in cooking, is a “timestamp” for Yuman pottery manufactured after 1400 CE. Some of the examples at Sacate had a micaceous temper, much like the stucco-covered pottery I’ve read about from the Ak-Chin Indian Community located a short distance southwest of Sacate, along the Vekol Wash. The archaeologists who worked on that project were similarly confused as to whether these micaceous, brown-paste sherds with stucco were examples of Yuman pots made with local materials, evidence of the use of stucco by O’Odham potters, or a “new,” hybrid ceramic type representing a convergence of O’Odham and Yuman pottery traditions. These are questions that we might be able to answer, but they require considerably more work and attention than what we could accomplish in a morning visit.
Back to the Workshop…
At the end of the site visit, the group headed to the GRIC CRMP facilities in Sacaton to examine a portion of their collections. Their staff had done much to prepare for the day, pulling samples of pottery, ground- and flaked-stone, metal, and glass artifacts recovered from Sacate. Very small arrow points, crimped bullet casings once used as scrapers and knives, an abundance of beautiful decorated O’Odham red-on-buff and black-on-red pottery, and a few examples of “Maricopa” (Piipaash) black-on-red and “Papago” (Tohono O’odham) green glaze ware…I found all of it quite interesting.
Mixed amid the bags of sherds were a few pieces of, again, what appeared to me to be examples of LCBW. I’m generally leery of taxonomies, as I understand them to be conceptual more than actual, and here I was confronted with the problem in person and in real time. When does “Yuman” pottery become “O’Odham” pottery, and vice versa? Does it depend on who made it, who used it, or who found it? What if the potter identified as both Yuman and O’Odham and blended practices from both traditions? And what if the potter saw no distinction between the two traditions, and the differentiation is yet another archaeological construct divorced from the Indigenous perspective? More questions, but perhaps ones that don’t need answers.
Following our perusal of the collections, the GRIC CRMP staff treated us to a lunch of traditional O’Odham foods, prefaced by a blessing delivered by the GRIC Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. Squash, beans, cholla buds, dried saguaro fruit, mesquite cookies…all prepared (and some even gathered) by GRIC CRMP staff. Prior to the pandemic, the community held an annual “Traditional Foods Day,” which I’d heard about over conversation at previous Workshops and had longed to participate in. I’m honored and grateful to have gotten the opportunity on this trip. Although I enjoyed looking at the pottery, this lunch was the true highlight of my day!
Our minds and bellies full, we ended with a presentation on traditional O’Odham architecture. The GRIC CRMP, who often carry out excavations prior to the development of new housing for community members, have encountered a fair number of kiik (traditional one-room roundhouses made of brush and mud), as well as the more contemporary sandwich house of mud, adobe, and repurposed lumber. Though kiik are a thing of the past, a few sandwich houses remain, and they are deteriorating quickly.
Because these are so distinctive and characteristic of traditional O’Odham architecture, I asked if there was interest in preserving at least one sandwich house for future appreciation and interpretation. Might this be a reason for listing one to the National Register of Historic Preservation, or might one actually be curated at the Smithsonian Institution? Certainly the preservation of traditional Akimel O’Odham architecture warrants creative operations.
With the fourth Workshop complete, and a fifth one under consideration, it has been worthwhile to reflect on where we’ve come and where we need to go. The Workshop initially developed because a group of interested researchers agreed that the prevailing LCBW typology was unhelpful and needed a reappraisal. At our inception, most also agreed that we should start by eschewing the defined ceramic “types” and focus instead on how certain ceramic attributes varied across space and time. I laid this issue out in a recent paper and established the productivity of such an approach in the study of stuccoed LCBW mentioned above.
Most recently, I took the relative quietude of the winter holiday season to buckle down and truly analyze the attribute data from those 12,000+ LCBW sherds our LGREAP crew cataloged. In my opinion, the results are robust and game-changing—certainly different than what the prevailing typology had asserted—and I look forward to sharing the fruits of that work later this year. I have a completed manuscript in hand, but it has to make its way through the academic and political review process before it appears in completed and printed form.
The fate of my manuscript aside, I want to acknowledge and thank GRIC for their hospitality, generosity, and contributions to the Workshop and to my thinking in particular as I formulate the next stage in my research on LCBW and Patayan archaeology more broadly. GRIC’s involvement in the Workshop since the beginning has been a real boon, and their continued involvement will be critical to our collective success. It is this kind of collaborative work that elevates archaeological research and scholarship beyond the academy and moves the discipline forward in positive, productive, and meaningful ways. After several years of isolation, coming together to talk “buff” once again brought back a sense of comradery and community I once worried would become a relic itself.