Yellow Ware Rim Sherd

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Bruce D. Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. Bruce D. Smith

Image Courtesy Bruce D. Smith

Dr. Bruce D. Smith first became interested in archaeology as a crewmember on a summer excavation of an archaeological site in Missouri when he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He went on to get a doctorate at Michigan and joined the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the late 1970's. For most of his career he has been interested in studying human-environmental interaction through the identification of plant and animal remains from archaeological sites. He enjoys the challenge of looking at small fragments of ancient plants and animal bones and figuring out what species they belong to, and if the species was wild or domesticated. Since the mid-1980's he has focused on documenting when plants were first domesticated in the Americas. He currently serves as the senior research scientist and curator of North American Archaeology at the museum, and he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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An Example of Hopi Pottery
E35438-0, Department of Anthropology, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution

About The Pottery of the Ancient Pueblo People of the North American Southwest

The Ancient Pueblo tradition emerged around 1,200 years ago in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Many cultures fall under the umbrella name Pueblo, including the Taos, Salado, Zuni, and Hopi people. There are five eras of the Pueblo culture, each with its own distinctive style of pottery. The Pueblo I era is noted for its smooth simplistic black on white or gray ware. As they transitioned into a more farming-focused lifestyle in the Pueblo II era, pottery became corrugated and was a more important element in cooking and trade. The Pueblo III era featured pottery that was more intentionally decorated with specific images and multiple colors. It was used both functionally in food preparation and displayed as art. The Pueblo IV era pottery was no longer corrugated, included multiple colors, and often depicted symbolic images. These pieces were fired and glazed and mass-produced as art. The final era, Pueblo V, lasts from about 400 years ago to the present day and has similar features to the previous era pottery. Modern Pueblo Native Americans still produce these forms today.

Examples of Hohokam Pottery
Curtesy of Arizona Museum of Natural History

About Native American Traditions of Southwest North America

The first vessels of the Southwest region of North America were woven baskets and string bags used for transportation, storage, and other needs. This Basketmaker tradition started roughly 4,000 years ago and continued through approximately A.D. 750. While undecorated gray ware was occasionally used, it wasn't until 1,200 years ago that ceramics began to play a large role in daily life. Along with other societal changes during this time, ceramics were suddenly much more varied in shape (pitchers, ladles, bowls, jars, plates). Three distinctive regional traditions emerged: the Pueblo or Anasazi tradition, the Hohokam tradition, and the Mogollon culture. These cultures each occupied a different region of the Southwest and had distinctive cultural practices, identifying features, and pottery decoration. Archaeologists can identify these cultures through their artifacts, traditions, and links to modern day residents of this region. Many modern day Native American cultures claim links to these peoples as their ancestors and continue to practice many of the same traditions today.

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?

Smithsonian Archaeologists in the Field
Courtesy of William W. Fitzhugh


How Archaeologists Use Pottery to Learn About Cultures

Archaeologists and researchers use the broken pieces of pottery or ceramics ("sherds") that they find during their search for and excavation of ancient settlements to learn many things about the people who once lived there. These pieces of pottery can provide clues about the age of the settlement that lies buried below the surface and the types of activities that took place there. Just by looking at the sherd, archaeologists can often recognize the size, shape, and date of the vessel based on the sherd's shape, the material used to temper the vessel, and the designs incised into or painted onto its surface. The date of the vessel will also apply to the settlement underneath the surface. Ancient societies changed the shape of their pottery vessels and their designs over time, sometimes quite rapidly, and archaeologists have been able to develop "ceramic chronologies" for different regions of the world. They do this by excavating and dating (using carbon-14 or other methods) ancient settlements of different ages and determining what the pottery of different time periods looked like.