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An amazingly unique and rare Hopi Polacca Polychrome Type “A” Bowl c. 1780–1800 AD

It is revealing to review the history of Hopi pottery types, especially when a unique object such this intact Polacca Polychrome A is discovered. In my experience, which is long and extensive, this bowl is the only intact piece of transitional Payupki/Polacca Polychrome ware I have seen. It is in remarkable condition for a vessel 240 years old, particularly given the turbulence of those years for Hopi, with outbreaks of pandemic diseases, droughts, and Navajo incursions.

Fifty years ago, a vessel such as this would have baffled scholars as to its age and classification. Though appreciated for its beauty, nevertheless it would have been dumped into a catch-all category of Polacca Polychrome (AD 1780 – 1900) largely characterized as crude tourist pottery. Only around 1975, the year I was appointed Director of the Thomas Keam Research Unit, did we begin to understand the true complexity  of Hopi ceramic traditions and to place them within a new chronology. Over subsequent decades of study since the 1981 Harvard publication of Historic Hopi Ceramics I have come to realize that even I misidentified somewhat similar bowls as being 60 years older than they were.

All this confusion is understandable given that Hopi pottery traditions remain the most complex among all Puebloan societies. Unlike Rio Grande Pueblos,

which historically consisted of a single village, the four mesas of Hopi hosted dozens of communities, each with its own version of pottery making. In some cases, villages intentionally pursued different iconography, shapes, and coloration to distinguish their vessels from those of others, following the general Puebloan tradition of using painted ceramics as cultural identifiers.

Compounding an already difficult situation, the Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish in 1680 had serious consequences socially and artistically for Hopi.

Both before and after the repressive return of the Spanish in 1692, many Rio Grande communities fled to distant Hopi as a Pan-Puebloan refuge. Among these diverse refugees were Keresan, Tewa,  Tiwa and others, each establishing their own villages upon the remote mesas and adapting their pottery traditions

to Hopi clay and stylistic influences.

To understand what was going on artistically in 18th – 19th century Hopi required a scholar fluent in all pueblo pottery traditions. A tall order, but there were and remain a few of us. One final factor needs to be considered to account for the general misunderstanding of Hopi ceramic history still to this day. Northern Arizona and the Hopi mesas were among the most isolated territories in 19th century North America. The first continuous contact between Hopi and Anglo America did not occur until 1875, and that remained nominal until the last decade of the 19th century. This period coincided with the rise of national museums, the Smithsonian, Harvard Peabody, the Bureau of American Ethnology, the American Museum of Natural History and others driven by a competitive zeal to match the cultural antiquity of America against that of European prehistory.

It was the time of launching massive collecting expeditions headed by now legendary greats like Col. Stevenson, Powell, Cushing, Mindeleff, Fewkes, whose directives were to vacuum clean the material culture of the American West. Quantity was the objective, and the study of these massive collections was put off to some indefinite future. The cataloging of these hoards was essential, but to speedily process such a river of objects led to meaningless terminology and groupings such as “White Ware,” “Red Ware,” “San Bernardo Polychrome – crude version of 15th century Sikyatki Polychrome,” and “Polacca Polychrome poorly made and fired tourist pottery.” While some now recognize the gross inaccuracies of such designators, sadly misinformation continues to be repeated.

Now that we recognize what this bowl is and its place in time it is justified to say that it is among the most remarkable and rare of Hopi — and for

that matter, Puebloan — vessels. The few other examples of this style A are but a collection of shards. Two are housed at the American Museum of Natural History. They are described as having been excavated at the turn of the 20th century “outside the village of Oribi.”

Both the enormous size ( 15 ¼” x 6 ½” ) and nominal surface wear of the vessel illustrated at the beginning of this essay point to its having been either an heirloom or clan object. This was not a Piki or dough bowl, whose wear patterns affect the entire interior of the vessel. Here we find abrasion only in a small area at the center of the vessel, likely from holding the corn pollen used in dances. Also of interest is that the two-partial bowls at the AMNH and this large beauty were all formed from Second Mesa clay, which has a distinctive pinkish color tone and a rougher texture than the clays of First Mesa. This is also the clay that Zia residents of 18th century Payupki village used.

But, irrespective of this historical and material data, the outstanding value of this vessel lies in its abounding beauty of shape, composition, painted line work, stone polish, and wall thinness. The composition is subtly asymmetric. The conscious use of asymmetry is visible in motifs such as the steepled church-like stacked black boxes with interior relief of a negative D form, and particularly in the interior banding, half red and half black, derived from Payupki Polychrome.  Finally, the triangular capped spread of three feathers to the top and bottom of the vessel are totally Payupki in conception. This can be clearly seen in the Payupki bowl pictured below.  Note also should be made of the remarkable exterior surface of this vessel, which over the centuries of handling

has taken on a rich dark black brown polish. A true testament to time.

Both intellectually and aesthetically, it is thrilling to know such a magnificent object exists.

-Edwin L. Wade, Ph.D.

c. 2020 by Edwin L. Wade, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

Edwin L. Wade, Ph.D. is presently the world’s pre-eminent authority on historic Hopi pottery. He is the author of several important books on the subject including “Historic Hopi Ceramics from The Thomas Varker Keam Collection” Peabody Museum, Harvard University Press, 1981 and “Canvas of Clay, Seven Centuries of Hopi Ceramic Art,” El Otro Lado Publishing, 2012. Please note that this Payupki/Polacca “A” bowl will be featured in Dr. Wade’s upcoming sequel to “Canvas of Clay” which will be entitled “The Call of Beauty: Masterpieces by Nampeyo of Hopi”. 

Polacca Polychrome jar, 1780-1820. Thomas Varker Keam Collection, Peabody Museum, Harvard University

The Keresan motifs and shapes of Payupki Polychrome dominated the first two decades of the emerging Polacca Polychrome tradition (A.D. 1780-1820). Deep globular jars

soon replaced these lozenge-shaped vessels a change that still reflected Western Rio Grande influence. In the New Mexico Pueblo of Zia, squat Puname Polychrome jars (A.D. 1700-1780) evolved into spherical San Pablo ollas (A.D. 1740-1820) . This sequence was exactly paralleled in the transformation of Payupki to Polacca polychrome at Hopi.

Photo source and © American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY

A Payupki Polychrome bowl, circa 1700

Photo source and © Edwin L. Wade and Allan Cooke, “Canvas of Clay,

Seven Centuries of Hopi Ceramic Art”, El Otro Lado Publishing, 2012, pp. 93