Sikyatki Pottery – Art Treasures of Washington

ONE of the most extraordinary, as well as one of the most beautiful, of the collections of pre-historic pottery preserved in the National Museum is the collection of Sikyatki ware, acquired by Jesse Walter Fewkes, who spent three months in collecting objects for the National Museum, to illustrate the archaeology of the Southwest, especially that phase of Pueblo life, pertaining to the socalled cliff houses.

The material brought back by the expedition was catalogued under nine hundred and sixty-six entries, numbering over a thousand specimens. The majority of the objects are fine examples of mortuary pottery, of excellent character, fully five hundred of which are decorated. In his archaeological investigations at Sikyatki, Dr. Fewkes acknowledges, in his excellent and comprehensive paper,1 the valuable assistance of Mr. F. W. Hodge, of the Bureau of Ethnology.

The mounds in which these relics were discovered are situated near the modern Tusayan Pueblos of East Mesa, and not far from Kean’s Canyon.

Legendary lore amongst the Indians preserves several versions of a romantic history concerning the destruction of Sikyatki by the Walpians, previous to the advent of the Spaniards. Writers speak of the locality as two prominent knolls about four hundred yards apart; the summits of which are covered with house walls. Sikyatki appears to have been inhabited by the Kokop or Firewood people of Tusayan.

The expedition prosecuted excavations at Sikyatki for about three weeks. Indian workmen were employed at the ruins and proved efficient helpers. Dr. Fewkes gives the following vivid description of them:

” The zeal which they (the Indians) manifested at the beginning of the work did not flag, but it must be confessed that, toward the close of the excavation it became necessary to incite their enthusiasm by prizes and, to them, extraordinary offers of overalls and calico. They at first objected to working in the cemeteries, regarding it as desecration of the dead; but several of their number overcame their scruples, even handling skulls and other parts of skeletons. The snake chief, Kopeli, however, never worked with the others, desiring not to dig in the graves. Respecting his feelings, I allotted him the special task of excavating the rooms of the acropolis, which he performed with much care, showing great interest in the results. At the close of our daily work, prayer offerings were placed in the trenches by Indian workmen, as conciliatory sacrifices to Masauwuh, the dread God of Death, to offset any malign influences which might result from our desecration of his domain. A superstitious feeling that this god was not congenial to the work which was going on, seemed always to haunt the minds of the labourers, and once or twice I ,was admonished by old men, visitors from Walpi, not to persist in my excavations.”

The pottery exhumed from the burial places at Sikyatki consists of coiled and indented ware; smooth and undecorated ware; and polished and decorated ware. The latter group is in three col-ours, red, yellow, and black and white.

By far the largest collection of ancient pottery objects from this locality belongs to the yellow ware group which is the characteristic pottery of the Tusayan, though coiled and indented ware is well represented in the collection.

The Sikyatki pottery, preserved in the Museum, shows little or no duplication in decorative design, and every ornamental food basin bears different symbols. The decoration of these food basins is mainly on the interior, but there is almost invariably a geometrical design of some kind on the out-side, near the rim. Ladles also are ornamented on the interior and handles. When the specimens were removed from the graves, according to Dr. Fewkes, their colours, as a rule, were apparently as well preserved as at the time of burial — nor do they seem since to have faded.

The Museum at present offers two cases filled with the choicest specimens culled from the graves of this ancient people, the striking feature of which is the decoration and colour. Most of the vessels are light yellow or cream colour. The articles pre-served are vases, jars, bowls, square boxes, cups, ladles, and spoons.

The pottery of Sikyatki is especially rich in picture writing; and important lessons, indicative of beliefs and practices current at the time it was made, are to be drawn from a study of the symbols used in decoration. The ancient inhabitants of Sikyatki have left no written records ; but the picture writing or paleography inscribed upon their mortuary pottery reveals many important phases of their former culture.

Symbolism, rather than realism, was the controlling element of archaic decoration. Thus, while objects like flowers and leaves were rarely depicted, and human forms are most absurd caricatures, most careful attention was given to minute details of symbolism or idealized animals unknown to the naturalist.

Very few figures of men and women are found on the ancient pottery, and such as are found are roughly drawn and appear to have been a late development of Tusayan art. The human hand, how ever, figures in the decoration of the pottery to a considerable extent. Figures of quadrupeds are sparingly used on food bowls or basins, but the collection shows several fine examples on which appear some of the mammalia with which the Hopi are familiar.

Snakes and other reptilian forms were reproduced by the ancient potters, and closely correspond to the conceptions still current in the locality. Figures of apodal reptiles, with feathers on their heads occur in Sikyatki decoration; and one basin in the collection is ornamented with the conventionalized representation of a serpent with a curved body, the tail being connected with the head, like a symbol of eternity. The body is covered with cross hatching in black lines. The head bears two triangular markings, which are regarded as feather symbols. The eyes are represented both on one side of the head, according to primitive custom. The zigzag line terminating in a triangle, which stands for the tongue, is a lightning symbol, with which the serpent is still associated.

The tadpole, which appears as a decorative feature on this pottery, is typical of the water animals which, amongst the inhabitants of the arid region, where rain making forms a dominant element in their ritual, are eagerly adopted as symbols.

One of the most elaborately decorated of the whole series of vases from Sikyatki, and indeed the chef d’oeuvre of the collection, is a large, handsomely conceived and finely finished vase with a butterfly design. Tho vase has a flattened shoulder and six butterfly figures are represented flying towards the orifice. From the number of these pictures Dr. Fewkes concludes a possible relationship with the six world quarters, north, west, south, east, zenith, and nadir.

The insects closely resemble one another and are divided into two groups readily distinguished by the symbolism of the heads. The butterflies are separated .by rectangular figures of two alternate patterns ; and the zone outside contains a wealth of ornament.

Dragon flies are amongst the most constant designs employed, and with them are associated many legends. But birds and the feather far exceed all other motives in the decoration of ancient Tusayan pottery, and undergo a process of conventionalization until the resemblance is to be traced only through a close observation of the series in which, one by one, familiar traits are reduced to the simplest symbols.

By far the most beautiful of the many food bowls from Sikyatki and I believe the finest piece of prehistoric aboriginal pottery, from the United States, is that figured in plate d (page 284). This remarkable object found with others in the sands of the necropolis of this Pueblo, several feet below the surface, is decorated with a highly conventional figure of a bird in profile, but so modified that it is difficult to determine the different parts. The four appendages to the right represent the tail, and the two knobs at the left the head ; but the remaining parts are not comprehensible.

” The delicacy of the cross hatching on the body is astonishing, considering that it was drawn free hand and without pattern. The colouring is bright and the surface glossy.

” The curved band from which this strange figure hangs, is divided into sections by perpendicular incised lines, which are connected by zigzag diagonals. The significance of the figure in the upper part of the bowl is unknown. While this vessel is unique in the character of its decoration, there are others of equal fineness, but less perfect in de-sign. Competent students of ceramics have greatly admired this specimen; and so fresh are the colours, that some have found it difficult to believe it of ancient aboriginal manufacture.

” The specimen itself, now in the National Museum, gives a better idea of its excellence than any figure which could be made. This specimen, like all the others, is in exactly the same condition as when exhumed, save that it has been wiped with a moist cloth to clean the traces of food from its inner surface. All the pottery found in the same grave is of the finest character, and although no two specimens are alike in decoration, their general resemblance points to the same maker.”

The most beautiful ladle in the collection is decorated with a figure of an unrecognized animal, bird, or insect, with a single feather in the head. The star emblems on the handle are in harmony with known pictures of birds.