A FUSION OF ARCHAEOLOGY AND CONSERVATION: PAINTED CLAY-COVERED BASKETRY FROM THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
To date, about 30 painted clay-covered basketry containers and armbands recovered from the American Southwest have been identified. They are rare, delicate, and generally fragmentary. They appear in sites spread widely in the region. It is unlikely that they served a utilitarian purpose. When examples are reported in sufficient detail, the evidence suggests that they accompany elaborate burials dating from the mid-1200s to the late 1300s. In several examples, it appears that the basketry had already undergone some attrition or wear prior the clay coating. In most of the known examples, the painting illustrates the use of quality materials and fine artistry. While the colors and designs used on these objects vary some-what, there are some common trends. Parallel bands worked into zigzags, nested triangles, and radiating lines are typical on most examples. Within the burial features, the placement of these objects near the head or on the upper body and inside ceramic bowls is typical.
Initially, project archaeologists viewed these objects as exotic and without significant comparison in the archaeological record. Due to their extremely fragile and fragmentary state of condition, the archaeologists expected that little could be revealed through the technical analysis process. However, the application of techniques and methodologies used in the discipline of conservation to recover, examine, and analyze the painted clay-covered basketry did result in important ethnological information. Aspects of the interpretive findings in the multicomponent sites seem to be comparable and consistent with those of other artifact analyses, which included ground stone, flaked stone, ceramics, shell, bone tools and ornaments, wooden objects, and worked stone. Additionally, several links to observations identified in the chronological, osteological, and environmental analysis have also been noted. Finally, ongoing studies indicate that a close examination of the paint technology utilized on these objects may be considered very important because it required a planned sequence of actions. Sequences may be learned by observation or by extensive experimentation with the goal of obtaining clear colors, even density, edge control, and lasting adhesion of the paint to the surface. Odegaard and Hays-Gilpin (forthcoming) suggest that the remarkably consistent and labor-intensive technology utilized in the manufacture of painted clay-covered basketry objects may provide a line of evidence for establishing cultural affiliation among groups that are separated by time and space. This supports the notion that elite status in the Southwest was based, in part, on the control of specialized knowledge and ritually linked items.
The analysis of multiple-component artifacts such as painted clay-covered basketry objects is well suited to the application of a conservation-based study. The process illustrates the use of the conservation discipline beyond the application of artifact treatment and clarifies its value in the written interpretation phase of an archaeological investigation. These studies have alerted archaeologists to several previously unknown aspects of the conservation discipline. As a result, the role of the conservator has been better understood and utilized.