Telling the story of ancient Southwest cultures through their pottery

February 20, 2013

The story of ancient Southwest cultures can be told through the pottery they crafted. While a constant for Pueblo people, ceramics evolved to reflect the historical and cultural circumstances of their lives.

A new exhibition featuring 100 rarely exhibited ceramics from the extensive collection at CU-Boulder’s Museum of Natural History will take visitors through more than 1,000 years of Southwest history (A.D. 500-1600).

The exhibition condenses a millennia of what Steve Lekson, curator of anthropology, describes as “glorious, messy and complicated human history,” into a coherent and enlightening experience that challenges conventional views of the ancient Southwest.

According to Lekson, who also is a professor of anthropology, there is much more to the history of the ancient Southwest cultures than archaeologists have traditionally thought.

“This exhibit offers a new history of the ancient Southwest based on recent research and new insights,” said Lekson. “I want visitors to come away excited and asking questions. I want to show how dynamic the past was. This isn’t the Southwest they think they know.”

Lekson presents a controversial interpretation of Southwest history in his book, “A History of the Ancient Southwest.” Published in 2009, the book is a fresh look at events that Lekson says include rises and falls, war and peace, kings and commoners, triumphs and failures, and large populations changing locations based on political or religious reasons and not because of weather changes.

His book is the basis for the exhibition titled “Ancient Southwest: Peoples, Pottery and Place.”

“The ancient Southwest has traditionally been viewed as a static place, where few things changed,” said Lekson. “But when Native Pueblo people tell you their histories, it’s all about movement and change. The striking pottery on display illustrates the remarkable range of native societies and their dramatic stories.”

A.D. 1300 was a watershed, according to Lekson. Before 1300, Pueblo people had one kind of society—after 1300, another. That change is reflected in their pottery: pre-1300, black-on-white, rigid geometric designs. After 1300, polychrome designs (red, yellow, black and white) in bold, dynamic, asymmetrical layouts.

Seven primary cultural groups represented

The exhibition is divided into seven areas representing the primary cultural groups that define the ancient Southwest: Hohokam, Early Pueblo, Chaco, Mesa Verde, Mimbres, Casas Grandes and Pueblo.

“These areas represent seven major events that took place in the Southwest,” said Lekson. “One of those events was ‘Mesa Verde,’ which everyone in Colorado knows about. But we’re not showing photos of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings. We’re showing the regional center of Aztec Ruins National Monument—the capital during Mesa Verde times, which may be unexpected.”

The core of the museum’s Southwest ceramics collection of approximately 5,000 ceramic pieces is the Earl H. Morris Pottery Collection. Morris was a renowned archaeologist with undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as an honorary doctorate from CU-Boulder.

Ancient pots were decorated using a yucca leaf to apply pigments made from boiled bee plant, tansy mustard and crushed minerals. Pottery held a sacred place in ancient Southwest culture and its function was ceremonial as well as utilitarian.

To provide a frame of reference for the landscape where the pottery originated, photographs of Southwest ruins taken by noted aerial photographer Adriel Heisey will be displayed.

Two years in the planning, the Ancient Southwest exhibit required considerable behind-the-scenes preparation.

As senior exhibit developer at the museum, Charles Counter manages the exhibits department and provides hands-on expertise in designing and building the exhibition.

Research expertise drives exhibit concepts

As with the Ancient Southwest exhibit, all exhibit ideas are based on research expertise from within the museum, on campus and beyond. Concepts are tested with the public through evaluation tools such as focus groups to gauge the appeal of a proposed exhibit and how well it communicates the concepts.

“The process itself takes quite awhile, from idea to the exhibit,” said Counter. “The three-dimensional design of an idea includes the experiential components of color, form, objects, space, lighting, presentation, and video when appropriate. Design sets the stage for an emotional and intellectual connection to the subject matter for the viewer.”

When the museum team begins planning an exhibition, two important considerations are security for the collection and conservation, which includes environmental controls and lighting levels. Pottery is a fairly stable material, but these ceramics are quite old, rare and fragile.

To fully appreciate the ceramics, visitors need a 360-degree view of the pottery. That consideration determined the manner in which the collection is displayed. The exhibit hall will feature freestanding casework, designed and built in-house, that people can walk around.

An animated map and educational materials will provide visitors with a robust learning experience based on Lekson’s research.

The “Ancient Southwest: Peoples, Pottery and Place” exhibit at the Museum of Natural History opened Feb. 21. The opening reception will be held Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 6:30 p.m., followed by a curator’s lecture at 7 p.m. The exhibit will run until Feb. 14, 2014.

Photo: Charles Counter installs exhibit at CU-Boulder Museum of Natural History.