HU Researchers See New Meaning in Pre-Colombian Pottery Designs

LAS VEGAS, NM – Geometric patterns on pre-Columbian pottery in the Sonoran Desert could be inspired by the region’s plant life, according to two Highlands University archaeologists.

Vic Evans and Warren Lail published their hypothesis last month in the Journal of Southwestern Anthropology and History.

“You draw what you see and what’s important to you in the world around you,” said Evans, who received her master’s degree in Southwest studies with a focus on anthropology from Highlands in 2010. “If you stand in the desert, you see the plant life is geometrically shaped.”

Evans and Lail studied pottery from the Hohokam, who lived in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert from A.D. 450 – 1450. Hohokam pottery often portrays reptiles, birds, insects and wildlife important to their culture, but it was believed depictions of plants were absent, Evans said.

“Given that so many other elements of the natural world were incorporated into their pottery designs, it is reasonable to expect that some of the geometric designs on Hohokam vessels are intended to represent plants,” Evans said. “Plants were food, medicine, fuel and structural material.

“Design is a form of visual communication, which is particularly important among cultures that lack a written language,” Evans said. Design is also a communicative tool that transmits information within and between social groups.”

Evans said one example of a common geometric pattern in the area is a chevron pattern, which could be a representation of agave leaves.

“You can find prehistoric agave roasting pits that would go on for acres,” Evans said. “You can use agave for many things including needle and thread.”

Lail, a Highlands professor of anthropology, said he was intrigued by Evans’ hypothesis.

“Everyone looked at this pottery and assumed dismissively that these geometric patterns didn’t have any meaning,” Lail said. “I’m always interested in people who challenge perceived wisdom. Evan’s work brings a new insight to the field.”

Evans said representations of plants on Hohokam pottery could be an indication of Mesoamerican influence.

“It used to be thought that the Hohokam was a backwater community, but it’s more complicated than that,” Evans said. ““For example, researchers believe that the Flower World, an early complex of imagery and metaphor that traveled from Mesoamerica into the Southwest, really did not reach the Hohokam. I disagree. If many of the geometric shapes in Hohokam pottery design actually represent plants, then it would seem that the Flower World imagery is more prevalent than once thought.”

Evans said her next step is expanding her hypothesis for publication in a book with Linda Gregonis, a widely respected Arizona-based archaeological consultant.

“We’re looking at every type of artifact: stone, figurines, rock art,” Evans said. “Our goal in this book is to identify and follow different artworks by the Hohokam to see what knowledge was widespread, and what was restricted. We’re examining what icons would a typical villager recognize as part of a Hohokam mythical cycle, what symbols might identify someone as ‘Hohokam’ as opposed to other, what patterns in Hohokam art and iconography symbolize cultural concepts and are evidence of their social activities and belief systems. Basically we want to present a Hohokam worldview through their art.”

Evans said the chapters include plants and animals, rock art, sacred landscapes, and sacred celestial objects.

“We also give a description of the Hohokam and a description of design theories,” Evans said. “The archaeological community has been very supportive of this.”