The Anasazi made some amazing art but it can be challenging to see much of it. The reason is that many of the best pieces are not on public display or are scattered in dozens of different museums many of them on the east coast far from the Anasazi homeland. So here I have compiled some of the very best of Anasazi art for you to see and enjoy.
1. Turquoise Cylinder Basket
This stunning piece was found in a burial room at Pueblo Bonito, the largest of all Pueblo ruins in the Southwest. It is made with 1,214 individually worked bits of turquoise glued onto a basket that measures roughly 3” x 6”.
When archaeologists discovered it the basket had mostly rotted away leaving the turquoise mosaic in the shape of a cylinder in place under the earth. The picture you see above is a reconstruction using the original turquoise glued onto a new basket to show what it looked like.
2. Pottery ladle
Ladles are found all throughout Anasazi country, some are plain and other are elaborately painted. This one originated from near the Hopi Pueblos which is obvious by the yellow color of the clay. Some of these ladles have hollow handles with little beads of clay or stones inside designed to rattle when they are shaken.
Imagine all the hungry families that were served dinner with beautiful Anasazi ladles like this. They probably took everyday examples of Anasazi art like this for granted. Never imagining that one day the tool their mother used to serve dinner would hang in a museum.
3. Inlaid bone scraper
Bone scrapers made from deer, elk or pronghorn leg bones are commonly found in Anasazi ruins. Most of these are not decorated but show signs of wear and use. So we know that these bone scrapers were a common tool of everyday use although we are not sure what they were used for. This one was found in Pueblo Bonito and is one of a few found there with exquisite inlaid decorations.
The decorations on this scraper are made from jet, turquoise and shell, masterfully inlaid and polished. This scraper was found in association with other ceremonial objects so must have been of some importance. The inlay was glued in place using the pitch from a pinyon pine.
4. Sikyatki parrot effigy jar
Bird effigies pots are often found in the prehistoric Southwest, ducks and parrots are common subjects. Turkeys appear in painted designs but are less frequent subjects for effigy pottery. The brilliant potters of the Hopi villages that produced the artistically remarkable Sikyatki Polychrome favored the parrot for both painted design and effigy.
Sikyatki Polychrome represents what is considered by some the apex of Anasazi ceramic arts. Its beautiful yellow color is absolutely unique in the ancient Southwest and because it was fired to extremely high temperature using coal it was very durable. These qualities meant that it was in demand and was traded far and wide in ancient times. Archaeologists commonly find Hopi yellow ware as far away as southern Arizona.
5. Bifurcated Burden Basket
Archaeologists think that this type of basket was used to store and transport ritual paraphernalia. They are found in and around Chaco Canyon in the 1000s and 1100s. The amount of work involved in creating a coil basket of this size and complexity is truly impressive. This basket and many other remarkable examples of Anasazi art are on display at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
6. Pottery sheep effigy
This classic Anasazi black on white pottery jar is believed to represent a wild Bighorn Sheep (you couldn’t prove it by me). This type of pottery was fired in pits in the ground and smothered with basketfuls of earth while still hot to keep oxygen from reaching the pottery. It is a type of pottery firing that remained a mystery until the early 1990s when it was rediscovered. It took some archaeology along with lots of trial and error to unravel the mystery. The man who figured out how Anasazi black on white pottery was fired wrote a book about it, here is a link to Amazon where it can be purchased.
This amazing piece of Anasazi art can be seen at the Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, Utah. Check out their website at this link.
7. Parrot feather sash
Speaking of the Edge of the Cedars State Park, their collection holds another rare wonder on this list. The only one of its kind, Scarlet Macaw feather sash found in a cave in southeastern Utah, it dates to around 1150.
The nearest wild Scarlet Macaws were far away in central Mexico around 1000 miles away. So not only is this sash breathtaking but it represents a vibrant trade network linking this region to the Mesoamerican civilizations of central Mexico.
8. Tularosa olla
Tularosa black on white is among the finest and most intricately designed on Anasazi black on white pottery. It was made near the end of the popularity of black on white pottery just before and during the time that red-ware and polychromes were growing in popularity around the Southwest from 1150 to 1325.
Tularosa was made in the Cibola region near present day Zuni Pueblo. It differs from the classic Mesa Verde black on white pottery in that it is painted with a mineral based paint while the latter is painted with organic based paint. They are probably fired differently too but so far nobody has ever cracked the code and figured out exactly how Tularosa black on white was fired.
9. Painted stone cylinder
This little stone jar was found at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. It is believed that it was some sort of sacred object but nobody knows for sure what its purpose was.
It is carved from stone and stands about seven and a half inches high. Painted with black clay, red hematite and blue azurite. A brilliant example of Anasazi art at its finest.
10. Kiva jar
Kiva jars are among the finest in Mesa Verde style Anasazi ceramic art. They are also among the only truly lidded jar in the Southwest. Finely executed with a lid and a lip to hold the lid in place and usually with holes along the lip for tying the lid on. Nobody knows exactly what the kiva jar was used for but they are as strikingly beautiful as they are rare.
11. Shell bracelets
A great deal of shell was found at Pueblo Bonito which is surprising given that it is over 500 miles from the nearest sea coast. Shell was used by the Anasazi for all sorts of things but mostly for art such as pendants, inlay, beads and in this case bracelets. Because they come from such a remote distance shell must have been a luxury good possessed by the rich and powerful in Anasazi society.
12. Chaco cylinder
Almost all Anasazi cylinder jars have been found in or near to Chaco Canyon. In fact most of them that have been found came from one particular room in the Chaco Canyon ruin of Pueblo Bonito which contained 111 of these cylinders. Studies have revealed that they were used to drink a chocolate drink. This is particularly surprising because the nearest cocoa tree would have grown well over a thousand miles south of Chaco Canyon in Central Mexico. Like so many other surprising examples of Anasazi art this one too points to a robust long distance trade network.
13. Jet frog effigy
Another excellent example of Anasazi art that was found in Pueblo Bonito. Sorry, I’m not doing this on purpose it’s just that Pueblo Bonito held a lot of treasures. This is a little frog effigy carved from jet and inlaid with turquoise.
14. Mesa Verde mugs
The Mesa Verde mug is relatively unique in the Southwest, there are mugs found outside the Mesa Verde area but rarely and nowhere else are they as common. If we only knew what they were drinking out of these, future research may reveal answers to questions like this. From an art standpoint they are amazing, providing endless variations of designs including such variances as rattle bottoms, handles with cut out designs, different shapes, sizes and painted designs.
15. Wooden bird and flowers
These items came from a cache found in a cave near Navajo National Monument in Arizona. Skillfully carved from wood and brightly painted, they give a rare glimpse of another time that we rarely get because wood and pigments like this rarely survive the centuries intact. But a cave is the perfect environment to preserve this kind of perishable art.
16. Corrugated jar
The corrugated jar was an everyday kind of item in Anasazi life and may not have been seen by them as a form of art, yet today the beauty and art of such jars is unmistakable. Corrugated jars were formed by not smoothing the coils on the outside of the jar leaving a rough, textured surface. These were used as cooking jars and studies have shown that corrugated jars were more resistant to breakage from continual heating and cooling that afflicts cooking pots. It takes a skilled potter to form one of these beauties.
17. Painted figurines
These carved and painted wooden figures are believed to represent a male and female form. They were found perfectly preserved in a cave in Arizona along with several other ritual items. They are reminiscent of Kachina dolls that Hopi and Zuni Pueblos make today. This type of figure may have been common in prehistoric times but because they are made of wood few have survived to our day. These items are on display at The Art Institute of Chicago. you can learn more about them on that website linked here.
18. Kayenta polychrome jar
In the later years of the Anasazi, white wares were waning in popularity and red wares were all the rage. Nobody in the Anasazi world made red wares like those in the Kayenta region of Northern Arizona. This Kayenta Polychrome jar was slipped with a red firing clay and fired in an oxidizing atmosphere, so the whole process was quite different from that used to create classic Anasazi black on white pottery.
19. Kiva murals
A kiva is the underground ceremonial room used by the Anasazi. In late prehistoric times (1300s to Spanish contact) the inside walls were sometimes painted with elaborate scenes of ritual and mythology. Some of these were apparently re-plastered and repainted frequently resulting in layers and layers of murals that archaeologist can reveal and record one by one. These brightly colored paintings can tell us much about life in those times as clothing and tools are often recorded in great detail. This image is a recreation of an actual kiva mural found at Kuaua pueblo, you can see it and learn about the others found there by visiting Coronado Historic Site in Bernalillo, New Mexico.
20. Four Mile Polychrome jar
Four Mile Polychrome is considered by many to be the apex of Anasazi ceramic art, made between about 1325 and 1400. Featuring bright red and white clay slips and black glaze paint often very finely executed. This amazing jar was excavated from Kinishba Pueblo and is on public display at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson.
Love Anasazi Art? What’s Next?
If you loved looking at and learning about these mind blowing examples of Anasazi art you should plan a trip to see some more, here are some good place to see more art like these.
- Canyons Of The Ancients Visitor Center & Museum, Cortez, Colorado
- The Edge of the Cedars State Park, Blanding, Utah
- Maxwell Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Arizona State Museum, Tucson, Arizona
- Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, Arizona
If you would like to learn how to make art like this, check out my online video based classes linked here which will walk you through the process of how pottery was made in the Southwest in prehistoric times.