Acoma Polychrome Jar (2013.01.091)
October’s Object of the Month (and the first ever) is an early 20th century polychrome jar from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. If you missed the introduction to this new series from the NMH Archives, you can find the first part here.
The jar isn’t very big, only 12.4 cm tall and 16.2 cm in diameter (~5” tall and 6.5” diam.), but it has the shape and proportions of a larger object, such as a water jar. It is decorated with a repeating black-and-white design called a Tularosa swirl, above a reddish-orange band. The bottom of the jar reads, “Acoma N.M.” Also on the bottom of the jar is a price ($25.00), written in pencil.
The word, “Acoma,”, the price marker, and the relatively small size of the pot are important clues for understanding both the jar and the history of the region. The prominent identification suggests there was demand for pottery specifically from Acoma. The price indicates the piece was probably made to be sold. Even though it has the shape of a water jar it’s a bit small to be useful as one. Conclusion: this jar was made for the tourist market.
Tourism in the southwestern U.S. increased sharply after the opening of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1859, although the line would not reach Albuquerque until 1880. Trading posts sprang up along the route, and Native American artisans began to bring their goods (pottery, baskets, blankets, rugs, etc.) directly to the tracks to sell. Artisans might travel long distances to meet the train, and tourists also had limited ability to transport large &/or delicate objects. The result was a miniaturization of many traditional pottery forms. This jar probably dates to the first half of the 20th century, although it might go as far back as the late 19th, when the railroad arrived in the area.
A few more details could help pin the date with greater accuracy. Knowing the names of the donor and potter would be very helpful, especially if we could find out when these individuals lived, as well as traveled and worked. This would provide better context for the piece. Incidentally, context is extremely important for archaeologists, too, and for similar reasons, although with repercussions that can affect the dating of an entire site instead of just a single object.
The jar is symmetrical and quite smooth, although it wasn’t thrown on a potter’s wheel. The pot is made of coiled clay (of local origin) built upon a small, molded base. The coils would have been smoothed and polished before the pot was dried, slipped, painted, and fired, probably in a fire pit rather than a kiln.
Even though we don’t currently know who donated the piece to NMH, it is possible to make some very basic guesses. It was probably given by an alumnus/a who traveled in the southwest, although whether for pleasure or missionary work (also a reasonable guess) is unknown. The reason for the donation is also unknown, although people might donate objects for reasons ranging from from altruism to self-promotion. If more southwestern pottery comes to light in the archives, maybe some of these questions will still be answered.
This is just part of the story told by one small jar. Look for the next Object of the Month in early November.
Sara Karz Reid
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