Julian Hernandez is a professor and professional potter, specializing in traditional pre-Hispanic Casas Grandes-style pots. He lives in Nuevo Casas Grandes.
Efforts Made to Rescue the Ceramics of Paquimé
By Julián Alejandro Hernández Chávez, 2013, translated from Spanish
During the pre-Hispanic period, the Paquimé culture can be considered the most important in northern Mexico outside of the Mesoamerican area. It was located in northwestern Chihuahua and presently covers approximately eight municipalities reaching the border at the northeastern part of the state of Sonora.
This culture flourished approximately from 700 to 1500 AD. Presently, in this region, there are about two thousand archaeological sites. Most of them have not been studied. In some isolated cases, foreign academics have carried out research, as is the case of the City of Paquimé investigated by the Amerind Foundation of Arizona, U.S.A. represented by Charles C. Di Peso. Eduardo Contreras Sánchez was the INAH representative on Mexico’s behalf. They carried out extraordinary field work between 1958 and 1961 and worked on the project another 15 years by publishing a unique collection of archaeological works written by specialists in related fields. The first three volumes are devoted to general knowledge of the Paquimé culture; volumes four to eight are reference works for archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and specialists in the field.
In the mid seventies, research of Paquimé in Mexico practically came to a standstill but it continued steadily in the U.S. where various groups of archaeologists from several universities carried out studies during different periods. They slowly enriched the documentary archives about this great culture.
One aspect that was studied was the pottery; it gives us information about the people who made it, the artists’ and artisans’ magical abilities and about the people who lived in the region during that era. Paquimé ceramics are unique; they are a representation of the ancient inhabitants of Chihuahua and contribute to the knowledge of the development of its inhabitants through time and help to place this culture within a larger regional context.
Today, a new kind of artistic expression has appeared almost spontaneously in the region. It is the production of low temperature ceramics inspired by the old pieces created by the ancient culture. In a relatively short time, about thirty years, it has come to occupy a space in popular art; a space that had been the exclusive domain of the great artisan masters and artists from the traditional ceramic production centers that had been in business for two or three hundred years. The new Paquimé ceramics that are made using traditional methods similar to the ancient ones are gaining ground, especially those made in the town of Juan Mata Ortiz in the municipality of Casas Grandes which have been recognized at national and international levels. These artists and artisans have brought many benefits to the communities where these ceramics are made.
My entry to the world of Paquimé ceramics dates from 1972 when I met the archaeologist Eduardo Contreras Sánchez who had been the INAH representative during the great exploration between 1958 and 1961. At that time, he was responsible for the Paquimé project and we became good friends. I collaborated with him in different ways, from supporting his investigative efforts and dealings with the authorities for the conservation of the archaeological zone and the protection of the sites against vandalism and sacking of which they have always been victims, in some cases due to ignorance and in others due to ambition. These have slowly destroyed the historic legacy of what is the oldest known social grouping in Chihuahua as well as the most important pre-Hispanic culture in northern Mexico and North America during the XIII and XIV centuries. Knowing more about the ancient inhabitants of Chihuahua, the land where I was born, filled me with pride and a sense of belonging to that land. Something that caused a strong impression on me was the pottery at the archaeological sites that although it had been abandoned and subject to the weather for more than 700 years, had not lost the intensity of its colors. Its unique designs called my attention because they contained information that had not been deciphered and that still holds the secrets of those people in each pot and each decorated piece found among the funerary offerings.
I read the material published about Paquimé, almost all the material was in English and there was little in Spanish. I concentrated on the pottery as the cornerstone to understand their cultural development through time and to help us conserve this legacy. I had the opportunity of drawing up the archaeological map of northwestern Chihuahua where we identified almost two thousand sites in a region that is presently occupied by approximately ten municipalities. One hundred and fifty kilometers from the Sierra Madre to the municipality of Villa Ahumada and the municipality of Madera to the border with the State of New Mexico in the U.S. some 200 km to the north. According to some researchers, this region was the seat of the Paquimé or Casas Grandes culture.
The great efforts made by Contreras did not receive support from the federal or state governments, much less from the municipalities. It is a constant that culture has the last priority in our officials’ and politicians’ plans. Contreras fell gravely ill in 1986 in Casas Grandes after several seasons of working there and died that same year in Mexico City. This called the attention to the northern region of the academic community, as well as that of the governments. Much like the medieval knight, “el Mío Cid”, he won his last battle after death. Paquimé appeared on Mexico’s cultural horizon and an unprecedented amount attention of the federation was given to the archaeological zone which provided more resources, more guards and more frequent working seasons sponsored by the Federal government. In this way, the archaeological investigation horizons in the whole state of Chihuahua became greater. As a result, a unit of the National School of Anthropology and History was established in Chihuahua City and the Paquimé culture began to be included in primary school textbooks.
Archaeologists from universities in the U.S., Canada and other countries came to Casas Grandes and I became good friends with Michael Whalen, Paul Minnis from the University of Tulsa and Oklahoma, Todd Pietzel from the University of Arizona, together, in 1985, they started annual projects and every year, they have brought students of all levels, BAs, MBAs and PhDs who have published a dozen books related to Paquimé in addition to more than a hundred scientific articles published in magazines that specialize in Arid-American archaeology. In fact, they have continuously, as a group and individually, kept studying the Paquimé culture following Di Peso’s and Contreras’ works with scientific exactitude. I have accompanied them to visit about 480 sites in the region, always specifically concerned with learning more about the pottery; although my specialty is not archaeology, I have learned much in these 27 years of working with them, some of their publications have been dedicated to me for which I am grateful and continue to participate in their work; their warehouse in Mexico is part of my house.
On our part, at the end of the century, at Casas Grandes we were fighting for our dream: to build an onsite museum at Paquimé which we finally achieved after nearly 10 years of negotiations. In 1998, the Museum of Northern Cultures and the Paquimé Culture was inaugurated after innumerable attempts; it was declared by UNESCO to be Cultural Heritage of Humanity as a unique culture with its own characteristics, in addition to the earthen architecture and the other unique aspects of the desert cultures. One of its most expressive manifestations is its pottery which has become Paquimé’s marker of identity.
In 1952, in Casas Grandes, Manuel Olivas began to produce low temperature ceramics decorated with the designs from the pieces found at the archaeological sites. His grandmother taught him how to find the clay deposits, how to prepare the clay and fire his pieces the way his family did to produce clay articles. This is how the new traditional Paquimé ceramics were born; after this, the ceramics appeared spontaneously in several communities in the region and the new potters exchanged the information they had. They sold their pieces as utilitarian and decorative objects, first to locals and later to tourists.
When Eduardo Contreras died, to honor his memory, I wrote a notebook titled: “Let’s Conserve Paquimé” to call the attention of the authorities and people who lived in the region to the fact that the archaeological sites needed to be protected because they were still being sacked. With the help of my students, we printed it at the “Francisco Villa” school. It had more than 50 illustrations and since in those days, INAH charged 400 pesos for the rights to each photo, we printed it on a mimeograph and instead of photos we illustrated it with some excellent drawings made by Gustavo Rubio. The first edition was 4000 copies which we distributed in the region and wherever we could. Later, in Colorado it was printed a second time, 2000 copies in both English and Spanish, the notebook practically became a guide to visit the archaeological zone. We only needed to complete it by adding photos to the drawings in spaces left for that purpose which made the visit to Paquimé more attractive.
At that time I was contacting persons who were beginning to work with ceramics and I remember that my first contacts were Andrés Villalba, Juan Quezada, Héctor Gallegos, Armando Rodríguez and a few others with whom I first began to work with clay. At the beginning of the nineties I began a new adventure in the arts by establishing the first formal workshop for traditional Paquimé ceramics in 1992. It was located in my house. We trained many people there and received support through temporary employment programs from the state government; there were also people who wanted to know about this new activity that provided for many families. Many of these persons continued with the ceramic art using as support the knowledge we had about the ancient ceramics of Paquimé. That was what I personally focused on because Mata Ortiz was evolving with contemporary designs and some of the artisans did not know much about our mother culture so I decided to focus my efforts on rescuing the ceramics with the ancient pieces and classical designs from the era of Paquimé’s splendor.
I contacted institutions in the United States and in many parts of Mexico to reinforce academic activities related to acquiring more knowledge about the ceramics of Paquimé. In Colorado Springs, Colorado I received support to write more about the topic and I completed a large manuscript about the events that had occurred in Mata Ortiz entitled “Mata Ortiz, Town of Potters, Ceramics of Northwest Chihuahua”. Due to its large size I was unable to publish it. I continued with exchange programs with institutions in the state of Chihuahua, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma in the United States; we exchanged experiences with well-known ceramists such as Gregory Wood who is an archaeo-ceramist who specializes in Anazasi ceramics from northern New Mexico and southern Colorado; we have held workshops on the production of ancient Anazasi and Paquimé ceramics for archaeologists through institutions like the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado and also soon with the Amerind Foundation of Dragoon Arizona, to hold new discussions on the ceramics of Paquimé during the last three decades with the participation of Mexican archaeologists and anthropologists.
In 2008 I summarized my previous manuscript into “The new Paquimé Ceramics” which I printed after trying, in vain, to get support from the government or another institution. The first edition of 2000 copies sold out and in 2009, the second edition was printed and also sold out. I hope to print a third edition in English to go on a book tour in the United States. The book sparked interest because it was written by a Mexican born in Casas Grandes who is also a ceramist which was a difference when compared to foreign publications.
I made a tour of institutions in Chihuahua, Jalisco, Mexico City, Baja California and Guanajuato; I visited universities, museums, public and private institutions to present the book, organize workshops, exhibitions, giving conferences to promote Paquimé and the Casas Grandes ceramics, especially the ones produced in J. Mata Ortiz. We sent some pieces to Europe on a traveling exhibition that began in Norway and ended in Finland.
Seventeen years ago, with the support of FONART and the state government, we organized the first Ceramic contest for the region of Paquimé that is ongoing and gives recognition to local talent and helps to support them with the sale of their pieces. There are a significant number of buyers from the United States which makes the event successful from a financial perspective and is a good pretext to get together with the locals. The name of the event was changed to Ceramic Contest of Mata Ortiz. We have supported the national ceramic contests of Talquepaque and Tonala. We encourage artisans and artists to participate with excellent results. Also, we recently promoted collective exhibitions like the Ollas Pintas at the Casa Chihuahua Museum where 20 artists participated. A year ago we also organized the 2012 Ceramist Meeting in Chihuahua City with the participation of ceramists from Guadalajara, Mexico City, Tijuana; Madrid, Spain; Chihuahua, Houston Texas and Colorado U.S.A. The next meeting is scheduled for May 2014 in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua with a much greater number of national participants.
In general, the actions of this writer may be summarized as having given support, promoting and presenting information about the Paquimé culture through its ceramics. All my efforts during these 22 years have been to get to know the material, the designs, processes and everything related to the ancient ceramics. I’ve also worked with the more modern interpretations of the art and supported new ceramists and the extraordinary contributions made by J. Mata Ortiz without forgetting that the ancient ceramists’ iconography is the way of keeping that cultural heritage alive and that it’s necessary to get to know it better. We have also tried to transmit knowledge of our mother culture to young people and have contributed to the conservation of the archaeological sites and we have registered whenever possible the knowledge we’ve acquired to share it with new generations. We have also organized activities oriented towards the academic considerations of the topic with the participation of institutions of higher learning and cultural organizations. One of our pending projects is the creation of a School of Ceramics where initially, a bachelor’s degree would be offered so that ceramists could be recognized formally for their contributions to culture and art and so that they may improve their standard of living.
It’s been a lengthy story but it finally ends. “Un abrazo”
Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, November 27, 2013