From the Shelter of Caves

July 1, 2014

Montezuma Castle National Monument, left, Lower Cliff Dwelling, Tonto National Monument, right

Upcoming Basketry Exhibition Includes a Mock Cave to Illustrate Importance of Caves to Archaelogical Studies

By Darlene Lizarraga 

Caves are special places for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is archaeological.

“Amazing preservation of archaeological fiber,” is how Dr. Nancy Odegaard, speaking from the perspective of a museum conservator, describes the archaeological benefit caves provide in the American Southwest. Indeed, dry-cave environments present ideal conditions for the preservation of plant materials.

An outstanding distinguishing feature of the Arizona State Museum’s upcoming new permanent exhibit, Woven Through Time: American Treasures of Native Basketry and Fiber Art—celebrating 8,000 years of baskets and basket weaving in the American Southwest and highlighting the museum’s permanent collection—will be a cave area. Three region-specific, dry-cave environments (mountain, plateau, and desert) will be recreated to illustrate for the public the conditions in which many of the most important objects in the ASM archaeological basket collection were actually discovered.

Geologically speaking, caves and rock shelters in the American Southwest are primarily of the “solutional” variety, to use the speleogenetic term. The greatest number of southwestern solutional caves is in limestone, with the sedimentary rock having been dissolved under the action of rainwater and groundwater, charged with naturally occurring acids.

Of all the varieties of caves around the world, one leading condition defines them all—the hollow in the earth must be large enough for a human to enter. That leading characteristic points one, naturally, to the anthropological angle of the geological feature.

Anthropologically speaking, then, caves of this region, including rock shelters, coupled with the famous low relative humidity of our arid environment, have been a boon to the scientists who strive to know more about the prehistoric peoples who discovered them, who conceived of their utility, who engineered dwellings in them, who raised families in them, who manufactured their wares in them, who cooked their food in them, and who were born and died in them. 

Archaeologically speaking, dry caves are responsible for preserving, in pristine condition for centuries, some of the most significant artifacts defining the region’s ancient peoples, revealing details about their still-not-fully-understood lifeways, like no other discoveries have been able to.

Museums are famous for the high-tech, climate-controlled storage facilities they employ to preserve their collections in perpetuity, constantly striving to regulate temperature, humidity, pollutants, light levels, even insects. For thousands of years, southwestern dry caves have offered the same conditions naturally.

To further emphasize this fact, Odegaard, ASM’s head of preservation, explained, "Our arid desert environment is ideal for archaeological preservation. Mix that with the shelter of dry caves, and you have a naturally occurring climate-controlled situation for the long-term preservation of plant and organic materials. We have objects made of 8000-year-old yucca leaf fibers and we even have 1500-year-old tobacco clumps found in the ceramic vessels they were left in by the people who made and used them.

"Archaeological discoveries in southwestern cave and rock shelter settings are amazing snapshots of ancient life," she said. "We here at ASM have students who come from all over the world, from wetter climates, just to work with and study our fibers, our corn cobs, and other organic material objects, simply because they don’t see these types of collections preserved where they live."

Over the past century, caches of organically based objects such as baskets, sandals, clothing, mats, cordage, nets, cradleboards, even cane cigarettes, have been discovered in caves and rock shelters all over the region. Some notable sites are Mesa Verde in southern Colorado, Broken Flute Cave in northeastern Arizona, Montezuma Castle and Tonto Cliff Dwellings in central Arizona, Gila Cliff Dwellings in southwestern New Mexico, and in southern Arizona, McEuen Cave and Ventana Cave. A comprehensive list is a long one.

And so, because the majority of the most important objects in the ASM archaeological collection were discovered in such environments, curators decided that caves should somehow be recreated and prominently featured in the museum’s new basket exhibit.

Thus, a vision for the cave area was born, as shown below.



Through the Generosity of the Community

This vision would not be possible without private support. In addition to tribal community and institutional supporters, scores of museum members and friends have contributed to the exhibit in general.

Each of the three caves is generously underwritten by museum members, Friends, and volunteers Doreen Burbank (plateau), Don and Maribeth Morehart (desert), and Ed and Paddy Schwartz (mountain). Each shared the following:

"Women in all ages have been forced to move because of circumstances they cannot control…drought, war, pestilence, famine. And they are often forced to leave behind, in the safest places they can find, the precious works of their own hands when they have become too much to carry. When the Arizona State Museum curators explained to me that dry caves were often the places that had preserved the wonderful baskets woven by ancient women, I visualized them having to part with their most beautiful things, over which they had labored so long.

"We cannot admire these baskets without remembering the hands that made them. My funding of a cave exhibit is also a memorial for my husband who loved all of the history and arts of the Southwest and also its beautiful and varied geological forms. He was a lifetime student of the world and its many wonders, and this cave is for him. Of Jewish heritage, he was a descendant of many who had to leave behind much that was precious to them."

—Doreen Burbank

"We were excited when we heard about the opportunity to sponsor a rock shelter for the desert dwellers in this area. These cultures are so rich. It's an honor to get to help bring their baskets and artifacts to museum visitors."

—Don and Maribeth Morehart

"Ed and I just loved the concept of a 'cave.' The implications of helping to create a quiet, intimate space in which to share the archaeological history of a particular Ancestral Puebloan group was too good to pass up. We have enjoyed so many exhibits and events at ASM that, when given the opportunity to help and share in the new basket exhibit in a meaningful way, we were delighted.

"I have been volunteering for Curator Diane Dittemore, helping to organize baskets for this upcoming project and have learned so much from her. I hope to learn more. I invite everyone to come and learn and have fun with ASM."

—Paddy Schwartz

Left to right: Curator Mike Jacobs with donors Ed Schwartz, Don Morehart, Paddy Schwartz and Doreen Burbank

Additional adjacent cave-like environments are also made possible through private support. An area featuring 1000-year-old sandals, some of the oldest and rarest items in the collection, is generously underwritten by Jane Swicegood, longtime museum advocate, supporter, and current chair of the museum’s Director’s Council.

Additional Features of Woven Through Time

Tribal consultations, content planning, object selection, interpretative story line development, and fundraising for From the Center continue.

Additional prominent features proposed for the larger exhibit include a Wall of Baskets—demonstrating the breadth and depth of southwestern basket-making traditions—and a Native Voice Theater—continually showing video interviews with and demonstrations by some of today’s most prominent Native basket artists.

Basket and basket-weaving themes to be addressed in the exhibit include 1) everyday use, 2) ceremonial use, 3) materials and technologies, and 4) iconographic symbolism.

The exhibit’s opening date is April 2017.


Sincere Gratitude

We gratefully acknowledge our tribal community and institutional supporters and our more than 250 individual donors, without whose generosity The Basketry Project and Woven Through Time would not have been possible.

Tribal Community and Institutional Supporters

  • Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society
  • Foundation for American Institute for Conservation
  • Gila River Indian Community
  • Graduate Incentives For Growth Award
  • Save America’s Treasures Grant and National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Samuel H. Kress Award
  • The University of Arizona Vice President for Research
  • Yavapai-Apache Tribe

Major Donors

  • Archibald and Laura Brown
  • Doreen Burbank in memory ofAlan I. Burbank, M.D.
  • Don and Darlene Burgess
  • David and Phyllis Burks
  • Joan H. Coyne
  • Wayne Dawson
  • Joan Donnelly and David Taylor
  • Karl and Sandy Elers
  • Wilhelmine Frankenburg
  • Richard E. Franta
  • Edwin J. and Kathryn Goss
  • Mike Jacobs
  • Charles and Candace Johnson
  • Peter and Eleanor Kuniholm
  • Don and Maribeth Morehart
  • Jordan and Jean Nerenberg
  • Nancy Odegaard and Greg Yares
  • Don and Reta Olsen
  • Thomas and Sharon Onak
  • Arnold and Doris Roland
  • Jean H. Schroeter
  • Ed and Paddy Schwartz
  • Martha R. Seger
  • Susan I. Seger
  • Eldon and Jean Smith
  • Jaye Smith in loving memory ofWilliam T. Lawrence
  • Josef and Susan Smith
  • Linda Staubitz
  • Jane Swicegood
  • Robert C. and Lisa Y. Swift
  • Marlies and Howard Terpning
  • Jack and Linda Van Straaten
  • Frances S. Walker
  • One anonymous donor