20,000 Pottery Vessels, and Counting

April 11, 2016

Treasures of Clay

By Margaret Regan

From the University of Arizona Alumnus Magazine Spring 2007

When Nancy Odegaard was recruited away from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology more than 20 years ago, she was dazzled by the pottery collection she found at the Arizona State Museum.

“It’s the most complete Southwest collection anywhere,” says Odegaard, conservator and professor, standing in the museum’s new state-of-the-art restoration lab. “There are 20,000 vessels in the collection, representing 2000 years of pottery-making in the Southwest.”

The anthropology museum’s treasure trove of ceramic pots represents nearly all the Native cultures in the Southwest, including Arizona and New Mexico, as well as northern Mexico. Their names alone tell a tale of regional history: Anasazi, Hopi, Mogollon, Mimbres, Casas Grandes. Made by Native Americans from the clay they found in these desert regions, the pots help anthropologists understand their makers, their level of technology, their social groupings, their trade patterns.

But they’re also gorgeous works of art. The “early formative” people of 2000 years ago made mud-brown bowls in simple, satisfying shapes. The Mimbres followed a thousand years later with exquisite black-and-white designs, teased into sophisticated geometries and stylized bats and coatimundis.) And today, the Tohono O’odham of southern Arizona craft cheerful “friendship pots”—in which human figures reach their arms toward one another along the rim.

These ceramics are fragile, though, and when she arrived, Odegaard was dismayed by the poor conditions under which they were stored.

“These are old buildings,” Odegaard says of the museum’s two brick structures, located in the UA historic district near Old Main. “They were state-of-the-art at one time.

But much of the pottery could not withstand the lack of adequate climate control. It was too dry in the winter, and too wet during the summer monsoons, when the humidity can hit 70 percent. That causes the salt in the clay to come to the surface—just like the pots on your patio.”

White salts that mar garden pots are a minor annoyance, but when they form on priceless antique pottery, they can wreak catastrophe. The salt “begins to knock off the beautiful design.”

Trained as a conservator in a joint program at George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution (she later earned a doctorate from the University of Canberra in Australia), Odegaard set out to stabilize the pots as best she could.

“When I was first on board, I studied the pottery. I’d determine the problem in a pot, and figure out how and why it was happening. We made remedial improvements. For nearly 15 years, I’d say, ‘Here’s another box of Band-Aids.’ But we exhausted all the little fixes. We had a sense of urgency about what was happening to the collection.”

No more.

She and her staff—three full-time conservators, two part-time chemist volunteers, and a changing roster of 8 to 10 student interns—also have a new home. They now have the luxury of working on the pots—and other museum holdings, such as rugs and jewelry—in a lab that’s similarly state-of-the-art. At 2200 square feet, it’s a big step up from their tiny old workroom.