BY PENELOPE HUNTER-STIEBEL
When conservator Landis Smith told me that she was working on an exceptional basket, what came to mind was the array of tours de force of basketry in the exhibition Woven Identities at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
With great anticipation I followed Landis into the bowels of the Museum of International Folk Art to the high-tech conservation laboratory that serves all of the Museum of New Mexico institutions. At her workstation she pointed to what struck me as the ugly duckling of Native American baskets. The focus of her attention was constructed with a simple technique of coiled grass stitched with yucca, widespread throughout the Southwest because it enabled containers to be quickly constructed from local materials. Alongside the basket lay a hank of the grass from which it had been made and the sandstone slab that had been broken to form its cover. She acknowledged that there was a comparable basket on view in the Mogollon-period (1200–1425) display in the MIAC exhibition Here, Now and Always.
So why the fuss? The basket had been discovered by a particularly nimble member of a group hiking along the Salado River. Scampering up an escarpment, he had spotted, under a high ledge, the lid and neck of the basket protruding from the soil. Another hiker in the group, who happened to be a volunteer working with the BLM, convinced the agile climber that they should leave the piece in place and report its location.
BLM archeologists returned to the spot to document the excavation of the find. They sent it on to the museum laboratory through an arrangement by which discoveries on BLM land can be researched, conserved, and then stored in MIAC.
I learned from MIAC curator of archaeology Maxine McBrinn that fragmentary or crushed baskets made by the earliest Basketmaker inhabitants of our region abound, but an intact basket is a rarity, and rarer still, one retaining a stone lid. This example was even more exciting because of what lay inside: glistening white crystals of salt. Though salt intake is necessary to human life, and its ritual uses, well-documented in both Old and New Testaments, are widespread among cultures, it dissolves, making archaeological evidence virtually nonexistent. The dry, protected location under the rock ledge where the covered basket was buried had preserved a rare sample.
Scientific tests are now underway: comparative analysis by Chief Conservator Mark McKenzie should identify the salt source, and radiocarbon testing will provide a date range for the basket. But to what end? Smith took me to MIAC curator Tony Chavarria (Santa Clara) for an answer that reveals an important aspect of his museum’s role: “Descendant communities are among this museum’s constituencies. Though they connect to their respective pasts through songs and stories, artifacts can awaken or confirm memory.”
I finally came to understand why Smith is so relentless in her tests and consultations with specialist scholars, scientists, and members of Native communities. While the role of pottery is well known because so many examples survive, the earlier use of baskets is as yet little understood. Maybe, just maybe, this nondescript artifact, with its handfuls of salt, will be a window to a past so distant as to be almost forgotten.
Woven Identities is on view at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture through February 23, 2014. Here, Now and Always is a long-term exhibition.
Penelope Hunter-Stiebel was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Portland Art Museum before settling in Santa Fe.