Digging for clues on a mysterious people, one pot at a time


Arizona Sonora News Service

The Homol’ovi Project isn’t like Atlantis; there’s no mystery as to where this civilization disappeared. Instead, anthropologists like Claire Barker are trying to figure out where the people came from.

Think of Barker as an anthropological detective. She has to put together clues from the past in order to track down the origins of the Homol’ovi settlement. But she goes about this a little differently than Indiana Jones might – instead of adventuring with a hat and a whip, Barker pieces together corrugated pottery to learn more about the people who settled in the Homol’ovi area back in the 14th century.

Barker is a research specialist at the Arizona State Museum, where she meticulously reassembles ancient pots.

Unlike the decorative, “pretty” pottery that most tourists see in Native American museums, corrugated pottery is “ugly,” and was generally used for cooking. However, Barker believes that the uglier the pottery, the better the insight it can give to the identity of those who used it.


Barker described the difference between the two types of pottery as being like the difference between your mother’s fine china and her Tupperware. When you serve a fancy meal, you use the nice plates because “you’re trying to say something about who you are, the kind of person you are, and what kind of society you live in.”

When you clean up the meal, however, and put it away in Tupperware, you’re not worried about presenting that image. “It’s just this very passive social identity,” Barker said.

Growing up and using the same kind of Tupperware as your mother, Barker said, is another example of passive social identity; you do so because “this is the way it’s done.” Following familial traditions is a part of our identity that occurs without us ever actively thinking about it.

Different for the sake of being different

Although studying corrugated pottery isn’t “sexy” archeology, Barker has always been someone who doesn’t want to follow the norm or do what’s expected of her.

The dull black pots seem uninspiring and may be overlooked by archaeologists who prefer to research more stereotypically exciting topics, but Barker’s enthusiasm and ability to understand some of the intricacies of an almost forgotten people turn ancient cookware into a treasure map.

“I like studying things that are not studied, that maybe have something different to say,” Barker said. “I like looking at things that are not what everybody is looking at, because they’re not the things that everybody else is looking at.”


Her desire to take an archaeological path less traveled began while Barker was in high school. During a field trip during her freshman year, Barker visited the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Colorado, which is when she first became interested in ceramics.

Although decorative pottery is visually appealing and on the surface seems more interesting, Barker found herself drawn to the corrugated cooking pottery.

Barker spent two field seasons before earning her bachelor’s degree studying Romano British archaeology in the United Kingdom. She then applied for graduate school to study classical archaeology, mostly because her advisors expected her to study American Southwest pottery.

“I think I applied to be ornery,” Barker admitted, unable to hold back laughter.

Despite her reluctance to become a Southwest archaeologist because “everybody does that,” Barker has found that working on the Homol’ovi Project has satisfied her curiosity and offered her a huge forum of knowledge in which she can contribute.

Amid unity, diversity

When the settlement was originally excavated for artifacts, researchers found several pieces of decorative pottery that were all made in the same style as the pottery unearthed in the Hopi Mesa area.

Previous research indicates that a relationship between the Hopi and Homol’ovi people existed, involving emigration between the two sites, so the similarities between the two decorative pottery lineages weren’t really surprising to Barker, though they did make her start asking questions.

“If you have a group of diverse people coming together and living together, there could easily be some kind of investment in projecting this unity that you see,” Barker said. “So is that unity because they’re all from the same place? Or is that unity because they’re all trying to look like one community that gets along as a way of social control?”

Barker began looking at cooking pots to address this idea of unity and identity within the Homol’ovi settlement cluster, which is an aggregation of seven pueblos. As she investigated the diversity of pottery in the different areas, stark contrasts began to appear – sometimes different materials were used to make the pots, or the way the indentations in the pots were made varied.

Though she hasn’t finished analyzing all of the pottery in each of the pueblos yet, she has found evidence suggesting multiple groups of people at Homol’ovi I, Homol’ovi II and the Chevelon Pueblo, an offshoot of Homol’ovi.

“We have this dichotomy between this pottery that’s more associated with the active parts of social identity and the kinds that are more associated with the passive parts of social identity,” Barker said. “And we really do see that there is this investment in constructing a unified identity, but at the same time there’s diversity on the level where nobody is really looking.”

Archeology for the everyday folk

The implications of her research could help reveal the dynamics of migration, community, and power structures in the Homol’ovi settlement 700 years ago, she feels.

That’s another reason why Barker loves her branch of archaeology – she is able to learn about how ordinary people lived in the past, as opposed to historians who often focus on important and famous people.

“Charlemagne is cool, but I don’t really care about Charlemagne,” Barker said, acknowledging that she was probably insulting many historians. “He’s not a representative sample of the people who were living in France at that time… and for all that what he was doing was cool, he was completely irrelevant to Joe the pig farmer.”

Unlike Charlemagne, nobody recorded the life of “Joe the pig farmer.” Most everyone knows of Charlemagne, but it’s Barker’s job to piece together the physical evidence to tell the stories of the common person.

To give a voice to something that has been thrown by the wayside, Barker chose to study corrugated pottery in the Southwest, and that’s why her research has the potential to uncover the complex dynamics of the people living in the Homol’ovi area hundreds of years ago.

“I think that’s why all of us do archaeology, just to learn about people who were like us a couple thousand years ago,” Barker said.


Elizabeth Eaton

Elizabeth Eaton is an undergraduate in the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism. She spent the summer at the Arizona Republic tracking down juvenile drug smugglers and following the progression of a major transmission line. She would die happy if she could travel around the world, eat food, and write about it for the rest of her life. 

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