Walking along the Gila River, looking down at the ground for larval burrow holes (not likely in the winter, but perhaps, following a rain, in this warmer weather), I find pot sherds, bits of plain brown clay from a group archeologists call the Mogollon culture who lived here from 400 to 1100 A.D. (the start of the Dark Ages in Europe to the first Crusades). Once I see sherds, I want walls, a line of rock barely above the surface of the ground, or the depression of a pithouse fallen in and silted over. At first, people built round enclosures dug three feet down with walls of mud and poles, and a roof covered with grass mats and branches. Women (most likely) made plain and polished red ware, waterproof clay pots superior to woven baskets or gourds. Here was a container that protected food from pests and could be put directly on the fire, reconstituting dry food, boiling together meat and roots and greens and herbs. Eventually these potters started painting their clay vessels with red on brown and then red on white designs. Later pithouses became stone-lined and rectangular. Villages of multiple pithouses also had kivas or ceremonial chambers. Many more smaller settlements grew up, like the one I am exploring now, scattered throughout the area.
As the labor of women increased—more pots to make, more crops to grow, more food, more people--cradleboards designed to carry a baby on a woman’s back changed to cradleboards that could be set on a surface or hung from a beam. In rock and ceramic art, gendered human forms appeared, with women and men at specific tasks. In architecture, rectangular structures allowed for space that could be set aside for jobs that required extended time or specialized equipment. Pithouses may have been preferred for their warmth and used mainly in winter by groups still mobile and semi-nomadic. But by 1000 A.D. the Mogollon culture had made a shift to multi-room, one-story, stone-masonry structures built above the surface, associated with large rectangular stone-masonry “great kivas.”
Also from this period, 1000-1150 A.D., the interior of clay pots served as canvases for artists (likely women) inspired by a new cultural renaissance. Narrative and fantastical images, along with geometric patterns, were painted in black on white: a creature half-bighorn, half snake; a wolf slyly wearing a deer mask; a woman giving birth; a man with a penis that had a little face--a little face sticking out its tongue! Today these pots can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are money in the bank. As good as gold. For this reason, without doubt, this small site has already been illegally pot-hunted, mostly by shovel but probably with larger equipment since the area is so accessible to a dirt road. Pot-hunters look for marketable artifacts, particularly the pots and funereal goods often buried under the floors of homes, buried with the dead, whom many Native American groups see as journeying until the last bit of bone and pot crumbles. To disturb these graves is to disturb these journeys. To disturb archaeological sites on public land is also illegal, punishable now by fines and imprisonment.
Still some people can hardly resist. A single pot could pay for a car. An arrowhead would look nice on a mantle—although it is more often forgotten in a junk drawer. Archeologists do what they can, with limited resources. I happen to know they have installed motion sensor devices at some of the sites in the Gila River Bird Refuge, which I might well be walking through now, my movements triggering a text message sent to a satellite phone monitored by an archaeologist who will stop by later to see if I have caused any damage. It is not illegal or wrong, of course, for me to be on this river bench on public land as long as I am careful not to dig up the ground with a shovel and careful, as well, to put any artifact I find back in the place I found it.
I pick up sherds, hold them, rub their edges, feel their smooth texture. I admire a bit of burnished red sensuously curved, the lip of a pot. I like quite as much the inch-long square of a corrugated cooking vessel. The thrill never gets old for me, this human making of pots, this life by the river. My own life in the early twenty-first century suddenly seems dreamlike, an amazing, amusing, fantastical dream. I have sometimes stopped in a store, in a restaurant, at a traffic light, confounded by an atavistic awe--both appalled and appreciative. Wow, I think. Who did that? What happened to the trees? I have felt, as I do now, alien to the modern world. A time-traveler not born here, but born there, not at home here, but belonging there.
I never feel this in museums. My connection to this sherd is directly linked to being outside, the sun on my neck, the smell of dust, my heart beating its pulse of blood and like her, like this potter, just another animal in the landscape. Maybe I have children. Certainly I have worries. Certainly there is danger, from injury and accident, from lions and bears and snakes and other humans. I might get an abscess in my tooth. I might have a difficult mother-in-law. I’m working hard to survive, but that’s okay—it’s good work. It feels normal.
We’re so flexible, we humans, with our plastic minds. Almost anything can begin to feel normal from living in a spaceship to looking for larval burrow holes, those tiny almost-perfect circles in the ground. I put the sherds back exactly where I found them and mentally text any archaeologist in range: 2BZ4UQT.