Curator’s Choice: “Hot” Chocolate Cylinder Jar
Now on display in the museum in The Pottery Project gallery. See our Visit Us page for hours and directions.
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Photo by Jannelle Weakly
Pottery: native clay and native paint
Scale relative to a human hand
Height: 8.5 in. (21.7 cm.), Diameter: 4.5 in. (11.4 cm.)
Purchase by the Friends of the ASM Collections, 2009
Text by Laura LePere, ASM Webmaster.
Innovative contemporary artist Diego Romero often uses prehistoric pottery forms painted in a comic book style to tell stories about both positive and negative aspects of Pueblo history and contemporary Native experience. He mixes ancient designs with graphic art style and references to popular culture to illustrate, in his words, “the absurdity of human nature.”
The cylinder jar form he uses here—which he calls a chocolate jar—is particularly special in several ways. The form is rare in the archaeological record of the US Southwest. Fewer than 200 of these jars have ever been found in the region, nearly all coming from the single Ancestral Pueblo site of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, NM. In fact, more than half of all the known examples came from one room there, where they were stacked and apparently stored for some later, special use.
Adding to the intrigue, the jars show evidence of having been repainted several times, quite possibly as part of rituals of renewal. They also show wear indicating they were used to hold something. Many theories have been put forth as to what that might have been. Recent analyses have found traces of the chemical theobromine in the jars. This is a substance found in plants, but no plant native to the US Southwest contains it. Theobromine is, however, found in cacao, which is known to have been grown and made into a drink—prepared in and drunk from cylinder jars—in prehistoric times, although much farther south, in Mexico and Central America.
Today, even though chocolate is quite common everywhere, it is still considered a very special substance, both representing and regarded with passion. To the prehistoric people of Chaco Canyon it would have been considerably more significant, since it would have come from far away in limited quantities. It almost certainly would have been exchanged for something very valuable. Its presence in the rare cylinder jars suggests it was used in ritual. And although it may have been available only to certain classes of people, there is some evidence that even relatively ordinary forms of pottery once held chocolate. Studies are still going on and ASM is playing a role, having recently released pottery sherds from our collection to undergo tests for chocolate residue.
Getting back to this modern piece, I chose it because I am pleased that museum collections are a source of inspiration and can give Native artists a reference point to speak to their own history and experience. On this jar, Romero refers to the prehistoric use of chocolate with his choice of brown paint—Chacoan jars are decorated with black, never with brown.
The designs on Romero’s piece barely recall those on the prehistoric vessels; instead, we see coyotes dancing around the jar. Overhead is a night sky teeming with not just stars but, Romero has pointed out, “flying saucers, the Milky Way, and the Taurus Nebula from Star Trek.” He admits to being intrigued by the idea of Mayan astronauts à la “Chariots of the Gods,” but I wonder if the celestial designs may also be poking a bit of fun at the near-obsession some people have with the astronomical features of Chacoan ruins.
The coyotes, Romero says, are “having a big old party.” Coyote is a trickster though. Could there be a hint that Coyote has tricked modern scientists into believing cylinder jars once held chocolate? I hope not, and that these coyotes ARE just having fun, enjoying the pleasant feelings we still associate with chocolate.
Thanks to Diane Dittemore, ASM curator of ethnological collections and Patrick Lyons, ASM head of collections for their assitance in researching this jar.
Prehistoric Cylinder Jars and Evidence of Chocolate
Crown, Patricia L. and W. Jeffrey Hurst
Crown, Patricia L. and Wirt H. Wills
Washburn, Dorothy K., William N. Washburn and Petia A. Shipkova
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