The University of Arizona

The Pottery Project Exhibit

World’s Largest Collection of Southwest Indian Pottery

Visitors admire the Arnold and Doris Roland Wall of Pots

The Arnold and Doris Roland Wall of Pots

At 20,000+ whole vessels, Arizona State Museum’s collection of Southwest Indian pottery is the world’s largest and most comprehensively documented.

What's in the exhibit?
The Pottery Project celebrates 2,000 years of Native pottery-making traditions in the American Southwest by showcasing more than 150 choice specimens from the larger, renowned collection. The art of the potter and the science of the archaeologist are illuminated by the Arnold and Doris Roland Wall of Pots, video interviews with archaeologists and Native potters, and hands-on experiences. A peek into the pottery vault gives just a taste of the breadth and depth of the larger collection, while a test version of the Virtual Vault allows you to electronically access some of the vessels inside.

Why is the collection so large?
Because of statewide urban expansion. ASM issues an average of 140 archaeological permits a year due to urban expansion statewide, on public lands (highway expansions, new power lines, new shopping malls, new housing, etc). As the official repository for archaeological objects uncovered as a result of that archaeological activity, the museum’s holdings grow on a daily basis. Two thirds of the pottery collection is of an archaeological nature. The remaining one third is historic and contemporary.

Why is pottery so important?
Archaeologists spend a lot of time studying pottery, whether whole or in sherds, because it contains an enormous amount of cultural information: who made it, where it was made, how it was made, how it was used, what it contained, where it got traded to, where it was traded from. Ceramics define what we know about the ancient cultures of this region and have helped archaeologists clarify the differences among the Hohokam, Salado, Mogollon, Mimbres, Sinagua, and ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi).

Which is the oldest pot in the collection? Tecomate (seed jar), ASM#98-136-177
ASM #98-136-177 is one of the oldest whole pots in the ASM collection, dating to approximately AD 50-150. This seed jar, or "tecomate," was found in a pit house at the Stone Pipe Site, near Prince Road and the I-10 frontage road. The site, attributed to what archaeologists call the “Agua Caliente” phase, spans the dates c. AD 50-475. The site was excavated by Desert Archaeology, Inc. in 1993-1995 under the direction of Jonathan Mabry (now the Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Tucson). The currently accepted cultural affiliation for the Agua Caliente phase is "Early Formative."

This pot is important because it originates in the phase during which the earliest ceramic containers are known for the Southwest. Though early, it is relatively large and remarkably well-made, which suggests that it does not represent the very earliest attempt at pottery making in the Agua Caliente phase. Another point of interest is that these earliest ceramics are primarily storage, not cooking, vessels. #98-136-177, with its relatively small mouth, is a seed jar and would have functioned as a storage vessel.

What is being done to preserve this collection?
With the help of many generous donors, Arizona State Museum was able to build a climate-controlled vault and state-of-the-art conservation laboratory, both completed in 2008. The Agnese and Emil Haury Southwest Native Nations Pottery Vault provides a stable storage environment for the ceramics in terms of temperature, relative humidity, and air quality. The lab provides increased work space for the conservators' continuous work ensuring the long-term survival of all the museum's collections.
More About the Vault and the Laboratory

Photos by Jannelle Weakly