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How a new religion and its distinctive pottery brought peace to the Southwest

[image] [image] Specialists have detected different styles within the Salado tradition, including Tonto pottery, left, named after the Tonto site in Arizona, and Gila ceramics, right, first identified in southern New Mexico. (Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, Department of Cultural Affairs Photography by David McNeece, 17973/11 & 51858/11)

Around A.D. 1275, during a period of unprecedented political and cultural upheaval, a new pottery style spread across the American Southwest. Called Salado ceramics by archaeologists, these pots were superbly crafted and painted with complex black, red, and white geometric designs as well as stylized creatures such as horned serpents. They were made in all three of the large cultural areas of the ancient Southwest: the Ancestral Puebloan (also known as Anasazi) in the Four Corners region, the Mogollon of southern New Mexico, and the Hohokam in Arizona. Scholars often use pottery to identify and trace specific groups of people through time, but the sudden appearance of this new style across three separate cultures has puzzled archaeologists ever since it was first identified in the 1930s at sites along southeastern Arizona's Salt River (Rio Salado in Spanish).

For decades archaeologists debated the identity of the people who made these ceramics. Were they a single group of people who migrated into the region, or did they belong to a "new" culture formed out of a combination of Hohokam and Ancestral Puebloan traditions? The debate has continued for so long and been so contentious that the question of the pottery's origin and significance is known simply as "the Salado problem," and it remains a major issue in Southwestern archaeology. I became interested in the debate because Salado pottery even appears in Chihuahua, Mexico, where I do most of my research.


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Southeastern Arizona's Tonto National Monument was once thought to have been built by the "Salado people," who were distinguished by a distinctive pottery that featured stylized designs of horned serpents. Scholars now believe the ceramics were made by many different cultures.

Archaeologists now agree that Salado pottery does not correspond to a specific ethnic group. Aside from the pottery, the "Salado people" do not share any consistent cultural traits unique to them. Quite the opposite--the area where Salado pottery was made, extending from central Arizona to western New Mexico, was home to tremendous cultural diversity.

Why were so many different groups of people making the same pottery? University of New Mexico archaeologist Patricia Crown has tested several explanations. Among them were the ideas that the ceramics were elite items that powerful people traded to reinforce their status, that the pots played a role in economic alliances maintained through intermarriage, and that they were "copycat" imitations of pottery made by other groups. But Crown rejected all of these, pointing out that Salado pottery is found buried with both elite and non-elite people and that the decorations were too standardized to reflect copycat imitation. Moreover, its complex motifs, such as the horned serpent, resemble sacred symbols that modern Southwestern peoples associate with water control and fertility. Crown concluded that the pottery reflected the rise of a new religion she called the "Southwestern Regional Cult," which began in communities in central Arizona and then spread throughout the surrounding region.

The use of ceramics to communicate religious principles and affiliation is not unique to the people who made Salado pottery; modern people at Zuni pueblo in New Mexico continue to use it in this way. What is different about the Salado pots is that the religion it reflects was not limited to a single cultural tradition, but grew out of several previously existing religious traditions.

Crown concluded the ceramics were made by people participating in an inclusive "poor man's religion" that arose during a period marked by community stress and massive migration. She suggested the Salado tradition may have helped integrate people who were socially and ethnically distinct but found themselves thrown together in the wake of social chaos.

Todd L. VanPool is an assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Missouri.

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