Decorated pots hold clues to vital mystery
Archaeologists delight Payson audience with visually enchanting clues to the rise and fall of civilizations
A world of triumph, tragedy and surprising complexity can be assembled from the puzzle of shattered pots bearing images of lighting bolts, demons, dancers and mysterious symbols, Allen Dart told the rapt members of the Rim Country Archaeology Society on Saturday.
He offered a glimpse of 2,000 years of innovation, economic evolution, invasion, religious turmoil, triumph and disaster through the brilliantly crafted, creatively unique pottery styles developed by the Hohokam civilization.
The Hohokam built a complex network of cities along hundreds of miles of irrigation canals in the Valley and built some of the most densely populated cities in North America before their collapse and abandonment in the mid-1450s, just ahead of the arrival of the Spanish in the Southwest.
The changes in their pottery styles from 800 B.C. to 1450 A.D. have offered patient archaeologists clues to the changes that shaped and ultimately doomed their civilization, Dart told about 75 people gathered for the lecture and a later potluck opportunity to sample recipes based on the foods of the Hohokam.
Dart is executive director of the Old Pueblo Archeology Center in Tucson and the Arizona Humanities Council provides grant funding so that he can take his public education effort to places like Payson.
Dart showed hundreds of slides charting the intriguing shifts in pottery styles, which hinted at mass migrations, the rise and fall of religious movements, the stratification of society and perhaps ultimately the economic patterns that led to their destruction.
For instance, between 500 and 1100 A.D. a new style of decorated pottery swept through the vast sprawl of southern Arizona dominated by the Hohokam. Mostly plain, unpainted pots gave way to creative, artistic designs that included loose, free-form spirals, wavy lines and playful figures, such as artfully stylized dancers with great square heads in a conga line, bizarre creatures looking like some cross between a coyote and a dragon, pelicans, bighorn sheep, herons, horny toads and other adroit designs.
Expert guilds of potters that could encompass an entire village began creating the wonderfully inventive designs that they fed into a trade network that reached up into the villages of Rim Country.
Dart speculated that the shift to the new designs, pots and loose, artistic, free-form drawings with pigments of hematite rich in iron and manganese marked a religious revival, which swept through the Hohokam core area after a series of economic and cultural challenges.
But starting in 1100 A.D., fresh changes swept through pottery styles. Now, the loose, delicately executed loops and spirals became thicker, harder, squared-off designs. The dancers and whimsical creatures disappeared, replaced by angular, stylized, geometric, abstract designs. The emphasis on decorating the intimate inside of the pot shifted to a preoccupation with the easily displayed outside of the pot.
Dart speculated that these stylistic shifts in the pottery reflected the rise of new religions and cultural organizations. The scattered clan and family villages of pithouses gave way to larger settlements, with self-sustaining elites and greater stratification between rich and poor. Family ceremonies gave way increasingly to great public ceremonies, reflected in the migration of the designs from the inside to the outside of the still-beautifully made pots.
Dart noted that the pottery left behind offered many such clues. Sometimes shifts in styles reflected massive migrations, as when the Pueblo people living in Colorado and Northern Arizona abandoned settlements like Mesa Verde and moved down into the Hohokam core area — bringing pottery styles with them. The increasing concentration of the pottery producers also testified to growing economic specialization, until the people in maybe seven settlements were making most of the decorated pots used throughout the region.
Tonto National Forest Archeologist Scott Wood, who attended the lecture, said the Mogollon cultures who lived in loosely connected villages and settlements scattered throughout Rim Country didn’t make the vividly decorated pots themselves, but traded freely with the Hohokam to obtain them — probably mostly for burials and ceremonial uses. The people living in these high altitude settlements didn’t have great rivers or a nearly year-round growing season, so they couldn’t produce the great crop surpluses of the Hohokam. Instead they hunted and specialized in things like fashioning axe blades, which they traded to the Hohokam for jewelry, pots and food surpluses, said Wood.
And that might hold the key to one of the great mysteries of archeology — why the Mogollon, Hohokam and a great connected network of prehistoric cultures all collapsed within about a century, depopulating the whole region by about 1450.
Look to the pots for the clue, said Wood.
The development of whole villages that specialized in manufacturing pots — or jewelry or axe heads — testified to the economic links between even widely scattered groups. The great food surpluses in the core areas of the Hohokam financed that growing economic specialization. Those surpluses allowed some people to spend all their time making pots, which they could then trade or sell thanks to the food surpluses in the thousands of acres of irrigated fields. That specialization spread outward and made possible a great increase in population densities.
So the entire, interconnected system was set up for economic disaster when a succession of floods and droughts hit the Hohokam core area. Archaeologists have documented a succession of famines in the Valley, marked by the growth patterns in the teeth of people buried as the vast, ancient civilization staggered toward disaster in the 1300s and 1400s.
That dense trade network which made the beautifully decorated pots essential in the burial of people living even in Rim Country testified to how easily such disaster in the breadbasket of the Southwest could have spread to all the connected cultures, said Wood.