Sara Harper and Jessica Work Begins in Pottery from the Americas | New Mexico State University - BE BOLD. Shape the Future.
Skip to main content

Work Begins in Pottery from the Americas

During the Fall of 2021, the University Museum was the recipient of a federal funds pass-through subaward from the National Endowment for the Humanities via the New Mexico Humanities Council. The award will support inventory, documentation, and interpretation efforts that will make our permanent exhibit Pottery from the Americas more digitally accessible in the future. As of the beginning of the Spring semester 2022, two graduate assistants have joined the efforts supported by the grant. In this first blog post, they describe their initial reactions to the ceramics and the project.


Reflections from Sara Harper – Graduate Assistant, Department of Education MA student 


They say that we came from the dirt. Dirt mixed with the breath of God, the primordial ooze, a hole in the ground. The potter mixes the clay with water, then molds and shapes it, their breath intermingling with the moisture in the clay, their thoughts poured into the vessel that they are shaping. Something is formed, then placed into a pit-kiln to be hardened, to be made useful. It emerges from the ground ready to begin its life upon the earth.   


Sara analyzing a vessel 


As I stand in the Pottery for the Americas room in the NMSU University Museum at Kent Hall, I find myself surrounded not just by pots, but by the lives of the people who created them, used them, and then left them to the earth.  I see the mark of a child’s fingernail in one, the bobble of a brush held in an unsteady hand in another. What nourishment was stored in this jar? What mundane or dramatic things did this effigy witness from its perch on someone’s shelf? What delight was experienced when someone found these shards in their backyard? What artist will see the old traditions mirrored in these vessels and be inspired to pick up their own brush or pound their own slab of clay and carry on with this work begun hundreds of years ago?  



Reflections from Jessica – Graduate Assistant, Department of Anthropology MA student 


Growing up on an archaeological site means pottery’s always been a part of my life. While my childhood experiences and archaeological field and lab work have exposed me to hundreds of thousands of pottery sherds, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to work with whole vessels. The “Pottery of the Americas” exhibit not only has whole vessels, but also has a greater variety of types. There are pieces from the Casas Grandes, Mimbres/Mogollon, and Chaco/Cibola cultures as well as pottery from various prehistoric groups in Arizona, which reaches well beyond my experience with Four Corners area types.  


 Jessica examining and documenting vessels


Working with whole vessels and new types is both rewarding and challenging. Whole vessels provide important information about design styles and vessel forms that are hard to learn from fragmentary sherds. However, there are some analyses that are too destructive for whole vessels. Temper (the pieces of sand, rock, and/or ground-up sherd people put in clay to make it stronger) is one of the most helpful attributes when trying to determine a vessel’s type. Analyzing temper requires looking at the cross-section of a clean break, and of course we don’t want to break a whole vessel. Without temper, I have to rely on other attributes such as slip, paint, and design to determine a vessel’s cultural affiliation and type. This makes it more challenging to accurately identify types as some can only be differentiated by their temper. This is why knowing where the vessel was found is helpful. 


I’m not only learning about new types of pottery as I inventory the pieces in “Pottery from the Americas,” but I’m also learning about various ways people used to reconstruct broken vessels. Many of the pieces in the exhibit have been glued back together. Some have evidence of being taped together at one point. Some have the missing pieces filled in with putty or another material. Some people choose to leave the putty as is, and others choose to paint it to match the bowl. While we generally no longer reconstruct vessels in museums, it’s interesting seeing the various methods collectors and museums have used in the past. 


I’m excited to continue working with the collection and seeing what else I can learn from it. 



This program is made possible with the support of the New Mexico Humanities Council. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the New Mexico Humanities Council.