Earth, Water, Fire, and Air

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Archaeologist Barbara Mills on vessels of early people in the American Southwest

Interview by Kimi Eisele

Barbara Mills is an anthropological archaeologist who uses ceramic analysis as a tool for understanding production, distribution, and consumption in the American Southwest. Her work in the Silver Creek area of east-central Arizona, including a multi-year collaborative project with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, has resulted in a series of papers and edited volumes on social inequality, identity, feasting, and migration. She has field and research experience in Zuni, Chaco, Mimbres, Grasshopper, and the Greater Hohokam area as well as in Guatemala, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. Dr. Mills also studies network analysis through the Southwest Social Networks Project. She is a Regents Professor of Anthropology, Curator of Archaeology at the Arizona State Museum, and a member of the American Indian Studies Graduate Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Arizona.

In this strange year of pandemic, I’ve been a lot thinking about containers, as many of us have had to (and had the luxury of) retreating into our homes and carrying out business and work in the rectangle of the Zoom screen. I want to talk to you about the rich history of vessels in the Southwest, from the containers people made to carry and store food and water to the architecture of their homes and ceremonial sites. Pottery seems like sort of the “charismatic megafauna” of archaeology. What drew you to it?

Barbara Mills, a woman with light skin, blonde hair, and a black adn white stripped shirt.

I’ve been interested in pottery ever since I was an undergraduate. I knew I wanted to do archaeology. I enjoyed going to museums and I especially liked the designs on pots. Yes, pottery is kind of charismatic. One of my first jobs after my BA and two field schools was working for the Pueblo of Zuni as an archaeologist. I was hired to do ceramic analysis. I’ve been doing it ever since.

For my dissertation, I was interested in how we can use information about assemblages of pots coming from one particular site or another to understand what people were doing at those sites. I started thinking about how to trace the components of the pot to their original provenance—provenience is where they’re found; provenance is where they’re made. If you think about all the stages of manufacture—we call it the “chaînes opératoire,” French for operational chain—each step in the production process can tell you a different thing about that pot. It’s just amazing what you can learn from a single pot or even portion of a pot, a potsherd.

What did you learn about early inhabitants in what is now the southwestern United States from studying their pots?

For many years I directed the University of Arizona Archaeological Field School on the Mogollon Rim, near Pinedale and Show Low, Arizona. It’s in this area where tree-ring dating had a significant event–the finding of the “Rosetta Stone” of Southwestern prehistory. In 1929, Emil Haury discovered a piece of charcoal that allowed dendochronologists to put the whole tree-ring sequence together. It was a floating chronology for most of the past. But that find now allows us to cross-date the pottery with the tree rings and narrow down the ranges of production, enough that many archaeologists who work with pottery in this area can date things to about a 100-year, sometimes even 50-year resolution.

I was interested in how migration affected people who were living in that zone. It’s called the Transition Zone. Geographically, it’s between the Colorado Plateau and the Basin-and-Range country, between Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde to the north, the Hohokam area to the south, and the Mogollon area to the east. It’s an area of heterogeneity. Migrants from northeastern Arizona passed through, some married in, and some continued to go further south, but they brought with them northern traditions that changed—really revolutionized—some of the pottery making in the area. Skilled migrants were accepted into the society and contributed by innovating and diversifying the containers that people were making.

Pinedale Polychrome bowl with black glaze and white kaolin paint, Bailey Ruin, Transition Zone, AZ, ca. AD 1275-1325
Pinedale Polychrome bowl with black glaze and white kaolin paint, Bailey Ruin, Transition Zone, AZ, ca. AD 1275-1325. Photo by Barbara Mills.

Can you give an example of one of those shifts or innovations?

People in Zuni were making White Mountain Red Ware, which is beautiful, bright red, with loads of variation and designs, and trading with people in the Transition Zone. Right after the depopulation of the Four Corners in northeastern Arizona, we know that people moved down into the Rim area, and started a parallel White Mountain Red Ware, but with a glaze paint. They really innovated this glazed paint, even before people did in other areas. They made a really dark black paint against a red background without having to worry about burning off the paint. Carbon paints will burn off in an oxidizing atmosphere, but they seemed to find certain kinds of minerals to use and by firing at a higher temperature, started to make a glaze paint, which is basically a glass. We now know about this whole migration history, how potters and weavers from northeastern Arizona came into the southern areas, as close as the San Pedro Valley, and transformed pottery making.

It’s really becoming evident that these zones of hybridity or interaction, boundary areas, are where innovation can start. More so than in the core areas. We used to think about areas like the Transition Zone or frontiers as watered-down versions of the core. But we’re now realizing that these “peripheral areas” are actually areas of innovation.

A black background with a Pinedale Polychrome Bowl with black glaze and white kaolin paint. The middle of the bowl is brick red with black jagged and swirling lines. The left and right inner sides of the bowl have black and white lines, some straight and some jagged.
Pinedale Polychrome Bowl with black glaze and white kaolin paint, Bailey Ruin, Transition Zone, AZ, ca. AD 1275-1325. Photo by Barbara Mills

That’s so beautifully fascinating, especially for our life here in the Borderlands.

Borderlands are areas of innovation, where migrants oftentimes have room to move into, because they’re not as densely populated. Oftentimes, they’re land-rich and labor-poor and so people’s labor is actually appreciated more because you need people to maintain systems and infrastructure.

And how did the Ancestral Puebloans use these vessels and pots?

We generally talk about serving, storage, and cooking for most containers. There may be several subcategories, like water jars that may have handles, and then we call them a canteen. Cooking pots are almost always unslipped, but in the Southwest, they textured the outsides. Even the early Navajo and Apache pots had corn-cob impressions from scraping them. Starting in the 900s, it was popular to leave coils on the outside unsmoothed. By about AD 1000, potters would use their fingertips to make little impressions in the coils, which we call “indented corrugated.” Again, it was one of those things that took off like wildfire and in this case went from south to north. Based on experimental and analyses by Chris Pierce, it turns out that by leaving the outside textured, the pots last longer; they are able to withstand boiling and cooling down or the thermal shock cycle.

Mesa Verde Black-on-white water jar with strap handles, ca. 1200-1300.
Mesa Verde Black-on-white water jar with strap handles, ca. 1200-1300. Photo by Barbara Mills.

Along with cooking pots, we have restricted vessel forms that are usually slipped, meaning they have a coating and are polished, especially in the later time periods. They’re used for water procurement and storage, so they have closed necks. We call them water jars. Another category is an open vessel or a bowl for serving. People in northeastern Arizona made pottery by putting it on a turning plate, so you don’t have to walk around the pot, you could just turn it as you’re working on it. There are cups and mugs and cylinder jars. Patty Crown, who now teaches at University of New Mexico, did residue analysis of cylinder jars at Chaco Canyon and discovered cacao residue. They were used for chocolate frothing. Cacao is a Mesoamerican crop, and frothing is a Mesoamerican technique. Patty has got a nice set of papers on drinking performance and power—how getting the cacao and making the chocolate was probably a way of expressing connections to the south, but also the power of those individuals to get that special substance and to use it in a public performance.

There are mugs in the Mesa Verde area that look exactly like a mug we’d use today. Pitchers are another special form. I think about those in terms of hair washing, which is very common in the Pueblo area. A special way of taking care of family members is to wash their hair.

I’ve studied different sizes of bowls, from individual serving sized bowls to those used by the whole household to those used at the suprahousehold level for feasting. The biggest of the Mesa Verde black-and-whites have outside decoration. The late White Mountain Red Ware also has outside decoration. Those were used in performances and you could see the designs from a distance—you know whose pot it is, who brought the food for the feast. The outsides of pots became an important field of decoration, which goes along with aggregation into larger communities, the use of plazas, and public spaces for performances. A lot of ceremonial occasions in the Pueblo world—and everywhere—entails feasting. You feed people before, you feed people after, and performers who practice for several days or even weeks beforehand need to be fed, during or after their practices.

Cedar Creek Polychrome (Late White Mountain Red Ware) large bowl (feasting size) with black glaze and white kaolin paint (copper in the black paint appears greenish).
Cedar Creek Polychrome (Late White Mountain Red Ware) large bowl (feasting size) with black glaze and white kaolin paint (copper in the black paint appears greenish). Bailey Ruin, Transition Zone, AZ, ca. AD 1300-1325. Photo by Barbara Mills.

Can you talk a little about the politics of studying vessels from sites that are ancestral spaces for descendants of those who lived there?

A lot of things have been repatriated. We respect the wishes of descendant communities not to display burial objects still in the museums. One of the projects I worked on very early at the U of A, we were asked to not illustrate burial pots with photographs, but it was okay to illustrate them with drawings.

But people like to talk about pottery. They want to know what you know, about where the clay came from, where the temper come from. In one recent project, I worked with Pueblo of Laguna potters who took us to places on the landscape where the clay and temper came from. They wanted us to do the analysis because they wanted to know what percentage used this particular kind of temper, and they encouraged us to publish on it. It’s always rewarding when you’re asked to do something and it’s useful for the tribe.

Plainware turning plate used for pottery manufacture, Bailey Ruin, Transition Zone, AZ, ca. AD 1275-1325.
Plainware turning plate used for pottery manufacture, Bailey Ruin, Transition Zone, AZ, ca. AD 1275-1325. Photo by Barbara Mills.

You also study memory and how the making of pots is an act of remembrance.

Many people who study potters cross-culturally have noticed that the body’s memory of how to make a pot and shape it is one of the most conservative aspects of pottery. You might emulate the design of somebody else, but the forming itself, you learn how to do it. It’s like riding a bicycle, right? People don’t forget how to ride a bike. You learn in a specific way then you remember how to do it. The pot is a reflection or a material manifestation of the way that person learned. We call these “communities of practice.”

It sounds a lot like what we in folklife call “intangible heritage.” The heritage that is the doing of something.

People have their own ways of doing things. It might be just the detail of the rim or the angle of the neck that’s done just differently on the same functional class. In the Mesa Verde area, they liked to make the necks of water jars more like a stove pipe. In the Hopi area, they might make that neck with a flaring-out rim. A big area of archaeology today is to try to identify those communities of practice, because they give us a way of looking at identity—who was making them, who was related to whom in their learning process, and maybe even where on the landscape spatially.

Each one of those steps in the chaînes opératoire is a different step. Where was the procurement of the clay? What was the mixing of the clay like? What did they add to the clay? How did they shape it? How did they treat the surface? How did they paint it, polish it, fire it? You could just get clay out of the wash and form it and fire it and not do much else. But people did do a lot else. The whole documentation of each step is really important for archaeologists—and contemporary potters acknowledge that and want to know what the different steps are.

And then to remember that it’s all just earth.

The famous saying is: It’s earth, water, fire and air. You have to have all of those to make a pot.

Sites themselves are also kind of a container for a way of life, a memory, a history, yes?

Yes. Oftentimes when making a structure, people will commemorate the construction or bless it by putting something into a niche. Turquoise and shell are very commonly used for dedicatory and closing rituals in the Pueblo area. That’s a way that people may honor the memory of how the structure was used. Things are often placed into niches or boxes in the floors as a way of thanking special structures at the end, such as great kivas in Chaco Canyon. Buildings don’t last forever, and people also move. My colleague Chuck Adams, who is recently retired from the Arizona State Museum, studies the Homol’ovi pueblos in northern Arizona, who most likely moved to Hopi. A lot of their structures were filled with sand and objects were placed in the rooms and more sand was placed on top. It’s what archaeologists call “ritual termination.” I live in a house that we had someone build for us and I kind of regret not putting something in the wall, a little commemoration.

In this past year of staying home, did you have a favorite container, either literal or metaphorical, that you used?

That’s an interesting question. I appreciated being able to look at some of the pots I have to remind me of the trips that I took or of the potters that I’ve met.

2 thoughts on “Earth, Water, Fire, and Air”

  1. Great conversation, Barbara! Loved to read all this info compressed into relatively brief episodes. More another time? best

  2. I am a cultural historian and ethnobotanist whose land is very near an archaeological site, and last year I had a spiritual intuition looking at a corrugated sherd that the earliest pots from the Pueblo period in the Southwest were made from baskets used as molds, or pukis, as they evolved from the Basketmaker period. Yesterday, I held my first pot made that way, although my pottery professor insisted it would never come out from the basket, and our local archaeologist said that was sheer nonsense. Thanks to the encouragement of several primitive potters, (who taught me the word, “puki”), and a comment by H.M. Worthington, from the Denver Museum in Prehistoric Indians of the Southwest (1959), who claims that during the development of true pottery in the late Basketmaker period, sometimes pots “were molded in baskets and in other cases they were started in baskets and finished by a coiling technique” (52), I never abandoned faith in my intuition.

    In preparing for this pottery class in January, I was also looking for a way to transport and keep coils moist, when I spied a giant yucca tree and got the intuition to cut fresh, green fronds from it for carrying coils. After several weeks of testing, I can confirm that the coils, wrapped both sides by yucca fronds, stay moist and can be easily carried anywhere. With so little evidence left to speculate about intercultural trade practices in the Southwest, these apperceptions can contribute to the body of knowledge Barbara Mills describes as the “provenance of ancient pots” that can lead to the discovery of “Who knew Who, What, Where, Why, and When” in the mysteries we are just beginning to unravel in the Southwest.

    And if the kind of electrospectrum analysis Patricia Crown had applied to the Chaco cylinders was used to look for yucca strand residue, even in broken sherds because the clay would have sealed them during firing, new insights could be added to the new Transdisciplinary Paradigm in archaeology, and a whole lot of labs could be kept busy because now we know how potters in “Communities of Practice” could have carried clay with them as they travelled.


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