Ancient Artifacts from the Ancestral Puebloan Peoples

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Display case shows various objects, such as pottery and bird figurines, with descriptive signage, as well as a large sign that reads "Pueblo Canyon".
A new exhibit case in the Grand Gallery, titled Pueblo Bonito: Trading Treasure; Trading Ideas, features rare objects collected during a Museum-led expedition at Pueblo Bonito in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon.
Denis Finnin/© AMNH

A new exhibit case in the Grand Gallery provides a window into the world and commerce of the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon from AD 850 to 1140 through a selection of rare objects from the Museum’s archaeological collection.

The exhibit, titled Pueblo Bonito: Trading Treasure; Trading Ideas, was produced with the Museum Anthropology Master of Arts Program offered jointly by Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History and in consultation with Brian Vallo (Acoma Pueblo), Native consultant and director of the Indian Arts Research Center (IARC) of the School for Advanced Research, and Stephanie Riley (Acoma Pueblo), registrar for cultural projects at the IARC. It showcases objects that offer clues about exchanges between the Ancestral Puebloan society and neighboring groups to the south. The artifacts were collected during a Museum-led 1896–1900 expedition at Pueblo Bonito, one of the multi-storied sandstone buildings or great houses that were built by the Ancestral Puebloans.

View from inside the remains of a sandstone structure shows window and door openings and evidence of a second story.
The multi-story sandstone building known as Pueblo Bonito was built by the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon from AD 850–1140.
Courtesy of Jacqueline Poggi/Flickr

“The Pueblo Bonito is world-famous and one of the premier archaeological sites in the American Southwest,” said David Hurst Thomas, curator of in the Division of Anthropology. “I’m thrilled that our visitors get to see these rare thousand-year-old works of art firsthand.”

Among the pieces on view are five cylindrical ceramic pots in a style unique to Chaco Canyon. Nearly a century after they were collected, researchers discovered traces of theobromine, the biomarker for cacao, inside the pots. Since cacao trees grow mostly in tropical areas far south of Chaco Canyon, the residue points to trade between the Puebloans and their southern neighbors, especially the Maya—and suggests that the pots were likely used in the ritual consumption of chocolate, which also suggests there was a cultural exchange.

Numerous wood, ceramic, and stone bird effigies in the new exhibit underscore the importance of birds in Puebloan rituals, especially the brilliantly colored scarlet macaw (Ara macao). These birds’ feathers would have been given as offerings and attached to prayer sticks and ceremonial masks. In a study published in 2015, advanced radiocarbon dating of scarlet macaw skeletal remains found at Pueblo Bonito revealed that the Ancestral Puebloans obtained these neotropical birds from trade thousands of miles south of Chaco Canyon in Mesoamerica as early as AD 900–975.

Jet frog with turquoise eyes.
A 1,000-year-old jet figurine of a frog with inlaid turquoise is among the items on display in the Grand Gallery.
D. Finnin/© AMNH

One of the iconic objects on view is the roughly 1,000-year-old jet figurine of a frog, an enduring symbol for water for both the Ancestral Puebloans and their modern descendants including the Acoma Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi. The figurine boasts inlaid turquoise, a semi-precious gem found throughout the Southwest.

Last month, the Museum hosted delegations from the Pueblos of Acoma, San Felipe, and Tesuque to view the new exhibit case and to visit the Museum’s pre-eminent Chaco Canyon archaeological collections, including ethnographic items from their respective Pueblos. 

Six delegates stand next to the new display case in the Museum's Grand Gallery.
On July 26 and 27 the Museum hosted delegations from the Pueblo of San Felipe (Ruben Duarte and Ricardo Ortiz), Pueblo of Acoma(Kim and Juana Charlie), and Pueblo of Tesuque (Mark Mitchell and Bernard Mora) to view the exhibit case in the Grand Gallery and visit the Museum’s Chaco Canyon archaeological collections.
R. Mickens/© AMNH

“The delegates’ important visit reflects renewed effort to foster open and productive dialogues between the American Museum of Natural History and Pueblo descendant communities,” says Thomas.