At El Paso Museum of Archeology, New Exhibits Highlight West Texas’ Puebloan History

By Andrew Stuart

The ancient Southwest was a place of tremendous diversity. Among the deserts, high plateaus and wooded canyons, cultures grew and flourished, influencing one another. They mastered agriculture in some of the most forbidding landscapes on Earth. Ceramics were ubiquitous – for cooking, and for contact with the sacred world. Artisans in adobe and stone, they built kivas and multi-story pueblos.

This Puebloan world extended as far as the Pecos River. What’s now West Texas was home to a civilization archeologists call the Jornada Mogollon. In two new exhibits at the El Paso Museum of Archeology, visitors glimpse this ancient civilization.

Impressively situated beneath the Franklin Mountains, the El Paso Museum of Archeology opened in 1977. The showcase of its collection is stunning ceramics from Casas Grandes, an ancient hub in what’s now Chihuahua. Its Jornada collection is small. But with the right context or guide, a dozen artifacts can open sweeping vistas.

Jeff Romney is museum director. 

“This one bowl has four separate features on the top rim of the bowl, often referred to as ‘cloud terrace’ designs, or they can also symbolize mountains,” Romney said. “Modern Pueblo potters, especially among the Zuni, are still using this design in their pottery.”

Jornada pots were less sturdy than ceramics from some areas in the Southwest – relatively few have endured. The exhibit includes two of the “El Paso Polychrome” style. 

In the Chihuahuan Desert, the association between the life-giving monsoon and the high places, where rainclouds gather, is inescapable. The “cloud terrace” resembles both a mountain, and a swelling cumulus cloud. Incised in the “terraces” are tiny holes, where feathers would have been placed, Romney said.

“It’s a prayer – it’s a petition,” he said. “These types of ceramic bowls are obviously much more than just ornamental or utilitarian. They have symbolic meaning. You see that even today amongst the modern Pueblo pottery.”

The Jornada began creating pots around 200 CE.  They were late in adopting signature Puebloan features – multi-story pueblos appeared here around 1200, compared to 800 CE in the Four Corners.

Ceramics were particularly essential for cooking beans. While many Jornada crops – corn, squash, amaranth – originated in Mexico, the Jornada domesticated their own bean varieties – among the most drought-resistant in the world. Tepary beans can be grown in recently flooded arroyos. Untended, they still persist in the landscape.

The exhibit includes other ceramic styles – including the “Chupadero Black-on-White.” The style seems a Jornada adaptation of black-on-white styles found in other cultures, in the Four Corners and the Mimbres Valley.

In another display, the exhibit includes stone metates and manos – tools used for grinding corn and crushing pigments for ceramics and painting. And there are perishable items, recovered from nearby caves – fragments of a sandal and basket, corn cobs, arrow shafts.

The Rio Grande was certainly a vital resource. But the Jornada didn’t live on the river, but at higher elevations, often on mountain flanks. In the El Paso area, thousands lived in dozens of pueblos.

But the evidence is largely out of sight.

George Maloof is a museum curator.

“People ask us all the time, ‘Can we go see these sites?’” Maloof said. “Well, not really, because they’re either buried under the city or they’re off on Fort Bliss somewhere. The rock art sites are mostly what we can send people to.”

The museum’s second Jornada exhibit showcases that rock art – in photos from Hueco Tanks, Alamo Canyon near Fort Hancock, Three Rivers and other sites in New Mexico. It’s a staggering legacy.

One distinctive motif, rendered in paintings and carvings, is the “goggle-eyed” figure – which resembles the Mesoamerica rain god Tlaloc. Water-loving creatures – frogs, turtles, dragonflies – are common.

Then there are the masks and many headdressed figures, which resonate with kachina traditions and contemporary Puebloan ceremonies. Jornada images depict figures with bighorn-sheep headdresses. At one site, a bighorn skull was found – embedded with turquoise.

The human history of the desert strains comprehension. There were diverse ethnicities and languages. Migration is central to the story. When drought struck, a people would move elsewhere, to coexist or integrate with others. But from the Tigua community of El Paso to Taos Pueblo to the Hopi Mesas, the people, and cultures, endure today. The El Paso Museum offers a window into the depths of that tradition. 

The Jornada exhibits are on display until September 14.