Art Treasures of Washington – Artistic Pottery Of The Pueblos

THE valuable collection of the pottery of the ancient Pueblo Indians, owned by the Bureau of Ethnology, had its commencement w nth the collections made personally by Major Powell, before the establishment of the bureau. The collection contains examples of the coiled, plain, and painted wares of the more ancient or prehistoric tribes.

The Pueblos were sedentary and thus practised ceramic art continuously for a long period; also, in their arid country, there was special need of vessels for the transportation and storage of water. Owing to the first of these peculiarities of habitat and environment, their ceramic art is without any indication of distinct periods; on account of the second, very many specimens have been produced and preserved.

The Pueblo pottery is dominated by its functional characteristics.

The ancient Pueblo peoples dwelt in a land of canyons and high plateaus. They had their greatest development in the valley of the Rio Colorado; while remnants of their art are found in the neighbouring valleys of the Great Salt Lake, the Arkansas, and the Rio Grande, and, southward, beyond the Rio Gila into the table lands of Chihuahua and Sonora. Thus outlined is an area of more than one hundred thousand square miles, which has, at times more or less remote, been occupied by tribes of town building and pottery making Indians.

Examination of the pottery convinces that the vessels were built and finished by hands alone. No wheel was used, although supports, such as shallow, earthen vessels, baskets, and gourds were certainly employed to a considerable extent. The form was simple and pleasing, the colour varied, although light grays prevail, especially in the more archaic varieties; ,and great attention was given to surface finish.

The art of building vessels by means of coils of clay has been practised by many widely separated communities, and is not peculiar to the Pueblos; but its most striking variation, the employment of the coil as a means of embellishment is apparently peculiar to these peoples. With other tribes it is a feature of construction simply, and they smoothed off the coils so that no trace was eventually left of them. The coil process represents about the highest development of the skill of the American Indian potter, and was in use all over the continent.

The Pueblos used the coil as a prominent feature in the decoration of their pottery, and developed its natural advantage in innumerable ways, by improving upon the accidents of manufacture. A great variety of devices was resorted to, to diversify and decorate the ribbed spirals, and in this the innate good taste of the Indian exhibits itself to much advantage. The coil is often indented or crimped throughout, or in alternate bands or groups of bands; and more elaborate results are attained by thumb nail indentations.

The Museum has some fine vessels of this class from Springerville, and others from the province of Tusayan, in which the whole surface is covered with checkered or meandered patterns.

In his interesting and comprehensive monograph on the subject Mr. Holmes describes early expeditions into the land of the cliff dwellers, and incidentally the discovery of a fine pair of water jars, now in the Museum collection :

” On the occasion of our first passage down the canyon of the Rio Mancos (Colorado), I made the discovery of a group of fine cliff houses on the south side, far up in the vertical walls. On our return, I made it a point to camp for the night directly below these houses, although a dense growth of underbrush had to be cut away, to give room for our beds, by the side of the sluggish stream.

” The two finest houses were set in shallow, wind worn caves, several feet above the valley. One was almost directly above the other, the upper being reached by a number of notches picked in the nearly vertical rock face.

” I had ascended alone and was busily engaged in studying the upper house and tracing the plans of its fallen walls, when I heard a voice echoing among the cliffs. Descending in haste to the lower house, I found that one of my men had followed me, and was excitedly scratching with a stick among the debris of fallen walls. He had just discovered the rim of a buried pot and was fairly breathless from the anticipation of a ` pile of moons.’ By the aid of my geological hammer, we soon had the upper part of the neck uncovered; but hesitated a moment, with bated breath, before venturing to raise the rough stone lid. But there was no treasure — only a heap of dust. I was content, how-ever, and when, by a little further search, we came upon a second vessel, a mate to the first, the momentary shades of disappointment had vanished.

” These vessels had been placed in a small recess, where the falling walls had not reached them, and were standing, just as they had been placed by their ancient possessors. The more perfect one, which had lost only a small chip from the rim, I determined to bring away entire. This I succeeded in doing by wrapping it in a blanket, and, by means of straps, slinging it across my back. I carried it thus for a number of days over the rough trails of the canyons and plateaus. The other, which was badly cracked when found, was pulled apart and packed away in one of the mess chests. It is now, with its mate, in the National Museum, perfectly restored.”

The capacity of these jars is nearly four gallons each, but the entire weight hardly exceeds that of a common wooden pail of the same capacity. Two small conical bits of clay have been affixed to the neck, in the more perfect piece, as if to represent handles; while in the companion vessel, a small cord of clay was neatly coiled into a double scroll, and attached to the narrowest part, corresponding in position to the knobs in the other example. This ornament while small, is, nevertheless, effective.

The most notable collection of this coiled ware ever yet made in any one locality is from a dwelling site tumulus, near Saint George, Utah, nearly three hundred miles west from the Rio Mancos.

About the year 1875, the curator of the National Museum obtained information of a deposit of ancient relics at this locality, and, in 1876, a collector was sent out to investigate. The mound was found to be less than ten feet high, and covered half an acre. The work of excavation was most success-fully accomplished by water, a small stream being made to play upon the soft alluvial soil, of which the mound was chiefly composed. The sensations of the collector as skeleton after skeleton and vase after vase were disclosed must have been keenly delightful.

It is supposed that the inhabitants of this place, like many other primitive peoples, buried their dead beneath their dwellings which were then burned down or otherwise destroyed. As time passed, the dead were forgotten; other dwellings were erected upon old sites, until quite a mound was formed, in which all the less perishable remains were preserved in successive layers. The belongings of the de-ceased were buried with them, and sometimes as many as eight vases were found with a single body.

As a result of this expedition the Museum pre-serves a fine collection of about sixty vessels, of which the majority are either plain or decorated in colour, but many of the larger specimens were of the coiled variety.

From the same source are two bowls of especial interest, as they have coiled exteriors and polished and painted interiors. They form an interesting link between the two varieties of ware, demonstrating the fact that both styles belong to the same age and to the same people.

The collection contains specimens of plain ware, rudely finished and heavy as if intended for the more ordinary domestic uses, such as cooking and storing provisions and water.

The designs of the painted ware of the Pueblos are characteristic, consisting of elaborate meandered or fretted lines, bands of fretwork dashed boldly across the inner surface of the bowls in a striking way. These designs are all executed in black and are, for the most part, nicely drawn.

The decoration of bowls is confined to the interior, and consists generally of a belt of figures, encircling the inner margin. In its simplest form it is only a single broad line, but more frequently it is elaborated into a tasteful border so wide as to leave only a small circle of the plain surface in the bottom of the vessel. The forms are rectilinear, modified by the shape of the bowl.

The rarity of life motives in the art forms of the primitive Pueblos has been often remarked. One example only has been discovered in this region, and is preserved in the Museum. The subject is painted on the inner surface of a rather rude bowl from the Saint George tumulus. A checkered belt in black extends longitudinally across the bowl and at the sides of this are two human figures in primitive style, their angular forms indicative of textile influence.

The district of the Rio San Juan, unknown and undisturbed until the latter half of the nineteenth century, furnished a series of ceramic remains more uniform in character and more archaic in decoration than any other district. The art of this district is unmistakably free from foreign invasion, and the early Spanish explorations are not known to have penetrated its secluded precincts. The Museum collection preserves many fragments about which the entire object has been reconstructed. Among the novel works of the ancient potter are the flat bottomed mugs, with upright sides and vertical handles, which extend the whole length of the vessel, on the principle of a German beer mug.

Besides the archaic white ware, and its closely associated red ware, the province of Tusayan furnishes two or three distinct varieties. Many pieces of the white ware are of large size and elegant shape and finish. Some of the ollas and bottles are masterpieces of art. The texture of the paste is fine and the colour is often quite white. The de-signs are uniformly in black, and are superior in execution and conception to those of the north.

The Pueblo ware is characterized, in a general way, by great simplicity of form. There is, how-ever, one small group of eccentric forms exhibiting a wide diversity. Some of the more unusual suggest the skin vessels so often used by primitive peoples, and their origin in this manner would be consistent with the laws of natural growth. One variety is shaped somewhat like a shoe or moccasin; while another takes the form of a bird.

Two great groups of ceramic products are featured in the Museum collections; the coiled ware, and the white ware. These groups belong to the first great period of the Pueblo art in clay. The coiled ware is to all appearances the most archaic, is simple in form and rude in finish, and without painted ornament. It was relegated to the more ordinary usage.

In his paper on the subject, already largely quoted, Mr. Holmes discovers an interesting relationship between the textile art of the aborigines and the potter’s handiwork. He says in part :

” The more closely the ceramic art of the ancient peoples is studied, the more decidedly it appears that it was profoundly influenced by the textile arts, and especially basketry. The latter art was practised from remote antiquity, and, within historic times, the manufacture of baskets has been the most important industry of the tribes of the Pacific slope of temperate North America.

” Ceramic shapes, wherever found within this region, coincide closely with textile outlines, and the geometric ornamentations can be traced to textile prototypes originating in the technical peculiarities of construction.

” There are in the Pueblo country no primitive forms of earthenware — this may lead to the inference that the Pueblo tribes migrated from other regions in which the earlier stages of the art had existed. Besides basketry it is probable that the early Pueblos made use of gourds and of tissue vessels, traces of their influence occurring quite frequently.

Tho Pueblo ornament utilizes to a great extent the meander as a unit of design. Beginning with the simple waved or broken line we pass up through all grades of increasing complexity to chains of curvilinear and rectilinear meanders in which the links are highly individualized. The typical intersecting Greek fret does not therefore occur, nor is it found anywhere in native American art.”