Arizona Cultural Resources: Pottery Origins as a Practical Domestic Technology

Christopher Garraty, Ph.D., RPA

As one of Logan Simpson’s cultural resource consultants, I have been conducting research on ancient pottery in southern and central Arizona for the past eight years. The archaeological study of pottery and ceramics is crucial for understanding the ancient life ways of people prior to the introduction of written records. These valuable Arizona cultural resources, along with stone tools, are well-preserved and abundant at most archaeological sites in the state. In contrast, many other important cultural resources, such as food, wood, and fiber, are perishable and do not preserve in the archaeological record. Studying ceramics provides archaeologists with information about what people ate, their customs and technologies, artisan crafting practices, gender roles, patterns of exchange, views of religion and cosmologies, and many other important insights.

Pottery is made by forming clay into a desired shape and heating it to high temperatures to remove the water from the clay. This process, when done correctly, leads to strong and hard vessels that can be used to carry water, store, serve, and prepare food, and many other everyday household tasks. In Arizona, simple pots were made as early as 2100 B.C. by mobile hunter-gatherers in the Tucson Basin, but these early vessels appear to have been used sparingly and for ritual purposes.

The earliest known evidence for the use of pottery for everyday household tasks in Arizona comes from the site of Finch Camp in the middle Queen Creek area, east of Phoenix. Pottery vessels from of Finch Camp date as early as 350 B.C. By studying these early vessels (mostly globular-shaped jars without necks, sometimes called tecomates), I was able to infer changes over time in how frequently utilitarian pottery was used in households and the increasing number of tasks for which it was applied from about 350 B.C. to A.D. 400.arizona cultural resources pottery origins

Considering the nearly 2,000-year gap between the earliest known usage of ceramic container technology for ritual purposes and their eventual adoption for everyday domestic tasks, it is crucial for archaeologists to better understand the social and economic conditions that led to the eventual adoption of utilitarian pottery. Some scholars discuss the adoption of pottery in terms of the social relationships they helped people forge and sustain; others focus more heavily on economic causes and motivations. Based on analyses of vessel shapes, surface alteration, and fatty acid residues, I evaluate the competing theoretical models of pottery origins and argue that adoption of utilitarian pottery in Arizona was mainly encouraged by changing economic conditions and needs at the household level.

Utilitarian pottery, I suggest, was first adopted to help families deal with a changing subsistence practices and a shift from community- to household-based control over how food was obtained and shared. Over time, pottery use became more prevalent and accommodated a wider variety of functions, possibly in response to women’s task-scheduling conflicts as households increasingly relied on domestic crops, especially maize (corn), as a dietary staple. Additional study of early pottery use in southern and central Arizona in the future will be vital for understanding the technological precursors of the Hohokam ceramic tradition.

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