The University of Arizona

Treasures of Clay

An article by Margaret Regan appearing
in the University of Arizona Alumnus Magazine Spring 2007

When Nancy Odegaard was recruited away from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology more than 20 years ago, she was dazzled by the pottery collection she found at the Arizona State Museum.

“It’s the most complete Southwest collection anywhere,” says Odegaard, conservator and professor, standing in the museum’s new state-of-the-art restoration lab.   “There are 20,000 vessels in the collection, representing 2000 years of pottery-making in the Southwest.”

Dr. Nancy Odegaard in the vault

Dr. Nancy Odegaard, conservator, professor, and head of the preservation division at the Arizona State Museum, shows off the state-of-the-art Agnese and Emil Haury Southwest Nations Pottery Vault

The anthropology museum’s treasure trove of ceramic pots represents nearly all the Native cultures in the Southwest, including Arizona and New Mexico, as well as northern Mexico. Their names alone tell a tale of regional history: Anasazi, Hopi, Mogollon, Mimbres, Casas Grandes. Made by Native Americans from the clay they found in these desert regions, the pots help anthropologists understand their makers, their level of technology, their social groupings, their trade patterns.

But they’re also gorgeous works of art. The “early formative” people of 2000 years ago made mud-brown bowls in simple, satisfying shapes. The Mimbres followed a thousand years later with exquisite black-and-white designs, teased into sophisticated geometries and stylized bats and coatimundis.) And today, the Tohono O’odham of southern Arizona craft cheerful “friendship pots”—in which human figures reach their arms toward one another along the rim.