Di­a­logues with the old

Hon­or­ing ar­chae­ol­o­gist Polly Dix Schaaf­sma

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Hon­or­ing ar­chae­ol­o­gist Polly Dix Schaaf­sma

Polly Dix Schaaf­sma, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist who has long spe­cial­ized in In­dian rock art, is fea­tured in the cur­rent is­sue of the New Mexico His­tor­i­cal Review, and this month she is re­ceiv­ing two hon­orary doc­tor­ate de­grees in recog­ni­tion of her work — yet this is a do­main that has not been a pri­or­ity for a good num­ber of her peers. In a re­cent in­ter­view at her Santa Fe home, Schaaf­sma said many ar­chae­ol­o­gists “sort of shrugged their shoul­ders about rock art. They didn’t like it be­cause it wasn’t dated, be­cause there’s no stratig­ra­phy in an ex­ca­va­tion.” Even today, most of them “of­ten seem to har­bor the no­tion that im­age-mak­ing is a whim­si­cal thing and brush it off,” she says in Review. “Ar­chae­ol­o­gists won’t ex­tend their in­ter­est to all these lit­tle wiggly fig­ures of flute play­ers and an­i­mals.”

Schaaf­sma is one of the world’s fore­most au­thor­i­ties on abo­rig­i­nal rock art, ac­cord­ing to Duane Anderson (for­mer vice pres­i­dent of the School for Ad­vanced Re­search and for­mer long­time di­rec­tor of the Mu­seum of In­dian Arts & Cul­ture) in his nom­i­na­tion for her to re­ceive an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from the Univer­sity of New Mexico. “She has changed the long-held view that rock art is idio­syn­cratic and dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to date and in­ter­pret.” In a let­ter of sup­port, Santa Clara Pue­blo el­der Tessie Naranjo wrote about Schaaf­sma’s “sin­cere ded­i­ca­tion to eth­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tive doc­u­men­ta­tion and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the many sym­bols, etch­ings, and draw­ings on rocks and in mu­rals left by my (and other) Pue­blo’s an­ces­tors.” She added, “Not all Pue­blo schol­ars agree with her in­ter­pre­ta­ton of the images she sees and writes about. If or when I have ques­tioned her re­gard­ing an in­ter­pre­ta­tion I have been tempted to say to her, ‘I never thought of it that way.’ ”

Anderson re­cently told Pasatiempo that he sub­mit­ted a sim­i­lar re­quest for recog­ni­tion to the Univer­sity of Colorado. Both have been con­firmed: Schaaf­sma was no­ti­fied on Feb. 26 that she would be pre­sented with an hon­orary doc­tor­ate in sci­ence at the May 7th Univer­sity of Colorado com­mence­ment in Boul­der, and Univer­sity of New Mexico pres­i­dent Robert Frank wrote to the Santa Fe res­i­dent that an hon­orary doc­tor­ate “rec­og­niz­ing her “ex­tra­or­di­nary con­tri­bu­tions and ac­com­plish­ments” would be given on May 14.

Schaaf­sma grew up in Ver­mont. “I was an art his­tory ma­jor in col­lege, but I got re­ally tired of New Eng­land,” she said. “I knew there was a big­ger world out there. In my sopho­more year, I ap­plied for jobs in ev­ery na­tional park in the West, and I got a job at Mesa Verde.” There she spent two sum­mers wait­ing ta­bles for tourists, and she “quickly found out that In­di­ans and cliff dwellings were a lot more in­ter­est­ing than cow­boys and horses,” ac­cord­ing to the ar­ti­cle in New Mexico His­tor­i­cal Review. She would hike out to Pet­ro­glyph Point on Mesa Verde, but she remembered think­ing, “What could you learn from that jum­ble of lines?”

When she was in grad­u­ate school at Colorado pur­su­ing a de­gree in an­thro­pol­ogy, Cur­tis Schaaf­sma — her hus­band, who is an emer­i­tus cu­ra­tor of an­thro­pol­ogy at the Mu­seum of In­dian Arts & Cul­ture and for­mer di­rec­tor of the Lab­o­ra­tory of An­thro­pol­ogy — got a job on the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs prior to con­struc­tion of the Navajo Reser­voir Project dam. They needed some­body to do the rock art study, and Polly im­mersed her­self in that realm. Not long af­ter that, she and pho­tog­ra­pher Karl Kern­berger secured a state grant to do a sur­vey of the rock art of New Mexico. “We spent four months in the field all over the state, try­ing to get a grasp of what was out there. We just trav­eled around and talked to lo­cal peo­ple; one of them was [artist] Peter Hurd in Lin­coln County.”

“I am not a col­lec­tor — you know, want­ing to get to ev­ery site that’s been heard of in the South­west — but the other side is that the more you see, the more you know, be­cause it all adds up, and dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tion re­in­forces other in­for­ma­tion. If you can un­der­stand art styles in Western art, you can do the same thing with rock art, be­cause there are cul­tural norms deter­min­ing how you make a fig­ure. There are so many ways to de­pict a hu­man fig­ure. The thing about New Mexico is that be­cause peo­ple put im­agery on pot­tery and kiva mu­rals, you have a cross-me­dia ref­er­ence for un­der­stand­ing dates, and

you can make com­par­isons and as­sign things to dif­fer­ent cul­tural groups.”

She doc­u­mented her find­ings in Rock Art in New Mexico (1972). Her other books in­clude In­dian Rock Art of the South­west (1980, now in its 10th print­ing), and Images and Power: Ethics and Rock Art (2012). The range of top­ics in the var­i­ous chap­ters in­cludes Pue­blo kiva mu­rals, shaman­ism, sa­cred bun­dles, feath­ered stars, the horned ser­pent, war­fare ver­sus ritual violence, and the pres­ence of the Me­soamer­i­can Morn­ing Star-Rain-Maize Com­plex in the South­west.

In her sur­veys, Schaaf­sma some­times found that a Na­tive artist had cre­ated an im­age on a rock face that bore a much older im­age made by an­other. “For ex­am­ple, in the Four Cor­ners, Navajo rock art is su­per­im­posed over ear­lier Pue­blo rock art.” Is the artist hav­ing some sort of di­a­logue with the pre­vi­ous mark-maker? “Well, if you’re walk­ing in the boonies and you see rock art, it de­fines the place. It changes it, be­cause some­body was there and made an im­age. It might be re­garded as sa­cred or it might evoke a myth, even though it’s from some­body else’s rock art. You never know. But it marks a spe­cial place, and you might put your images there be­cause of that, or you might do it be­cause you wanted to dom­i­nate who­ever was there be­fore, or erase their ev­i­dence from the past.”

“You be­gin to dis­cern the pat­terns of rock art over the land­scape,” she says in the New Mexico His­tor­i­cal

Review ar­ti­cle, “and then you can ask, Why were peo­ple mak­ing art and how does the art help in un­der­stand­ing their world views, cul­tural val­ues and con­cerns?” This is­sue of the Review fea­tures six ar­ti­cles de­voted to Schaaf­sma’s work — and she col­lab­o­rated with Navajo an­thro­pol­o­gist Will Tsosie on the chap­ter “Xeroxed on Stone: Times of Ori­gin and the Navajo Holy Peo­ple in Canyon Land­scapes.”

There is a great va­ri­ety of rock art in New Mexico, cov­er­ing quite a long span of time, but most of what you see at Pet­ro­glyph Na­tional Mon­u­ment, for ex­am­ple, is from what ar­chae­ol­o­gists call the Pue­blo IV Pe­riod, from AD 1300 to 1600. “In Pue­blo rock art, there was a ma­jor change between the end of the 13th cen­tury and into the 14th cen­tury, be­cause there was drought and fight­ing and peo­ple moved off the Colorado Plateau,” Schaaf­sma said. “It was a pe­riod of cul­tural cri­sis. It’s at that point when we be­gin to see the im­pact, in the Río Grande Val­ley, of a new type of re­li­gious cos­mol­ogy from the south, and it was with great en­thu­si­asm that they made a lot of im­agery con­nected with that. A lot of the think­ing that was adopted by Pue­blo peo­ple, for which we have ev­i­dence in the rock art from that time, is also con­cep­tu­ally part of the larger Me­soamer­i­can world of farm­ers.”

Has she wit­nessed a sub­stan­tial Mex­i­can in­flu­ence at Chaco Canyon? “That’s a big ar­gu­ment, but no. There were macaws, a few cop­per bells, and cho­co­late, but if you trust im­agery to re­flect what peo­ple are think­ing, those el­e­ments did not change Cha­coan re­li­gion. They did not make Chaco dis­tinct from their neigh­bors on the plateau.”

While pet­ro­glyphs can be found in all sorts of land­scapes — where there are rocks that can be en­graved or picked — pic­tographs that have sur­vived

If you’re walk­ing in the boonies and you see rock art, it de­fines the place. It changes it, be­cause some­body was there and made an im­age. It might be re­garded as sa­cred or it might evoke a myth, even though it’s from some­body else’s rock art. You never know. — Polly Dix Schaaf­sma

for cen­turies are limited to caves and the sub­ter­ranean cer­e­mo­nial cham­bers known as ki­vas. “In the Pue­blo IV pe­riod, there was an ex­plo­sion of kiva art. There’s a prob­lem in preser­va­tion be­cause they were eas­ily de­stroyed, but we have Kawaika-a and Awa­tovi at Hopi [reser­va­tion] and then Pot­tery Mound south of Al­bu­querque and Kuaua at Coron­ado State Mon­u­ment. Kiva mu­rals rep­re­sent cer­e­mo­nial scenes. On a kiva wall, you have a framed field on which you can do a com­plex scene that has con­ti­nu­ity. You don’t find that as of­ten in a cave.”

Schaaf­sma said lay­ered images are some­times found in kiva mu­rals. “A kiva paint­ing could be mud plas­tered over and a new paint­ing made, then again, so that over the his­tory of the kiva there’s an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of im­agery. One of the things that in­ter­ests me is per­cep­tions of land­scape and how land­scape is used as part of peo­ple’s cos­mol­ogy. The land­scape is a very dif­fer­ent place than the kiva. One is in the vil­lage and the other is out­side, and they would have had dif­fer­ent au­di­ences.”

She did not go into de­tail about an­thro­po­mor­phic Pue­blo im­agery in rock art in this area, but she did say that ex­am­ples of early com­mon fig­ures in Pue­blo rock art not too dis­tant from Santa Fe and Al­bu­querque in­clude mountain sheep and pow­er­ful an­i­mals such as mountain lions and bears. Birds are important sym­bols in the Río Grande Val­ley. “One thing I tried to in­ves­ti­gate is the san­dal track. It’s a type of san­dal that was made from 1100 and it peaked right at 1200: a jog-toed san­dal. They show up across the Colorado Plateau.” The san­dal shape is some­times shown as tracks, but usu­ally it’s just the san­dal icon by it­self. “I never could come up with any sound con­clu­sions about the mean­ing. It could rep­re­sent a cul­ture hero.”

Shields are also fairly com­mon. “They start show­ing up in the Pue­blo iconog­ra­phy in the Four Cor­ners, just be­fore the place was va­cated. You have to un­der­stand that not only is the item it­self full of power, but an im­age of it can be as well. I think these shield paint­ings as­so­ci­ated with cliff dwellings in the Four Cor­ners area were put there as de­fen­sive magic, like the hex sym­bols on barns in Penn­syl­va­nia.” She re­called see­ing the Base­ball Man House ru­ins on a San Juan River trip up Chinle Wash in Colorado. “It’s a Pue­blo III [1100-1300] site, and there’s one big shield paint­ing that was made on top of a Bas­ket­maker fig­ure, so I think they in­cor­po­rated the power of the Bas­ket­maker fig­ure into the shield.”

Also com­mon are fig­ures of tur­tles, drag­on­flies, snakes, and clouds, be­cause of the pro­found im­por­tance of water to the peo­ple liv­ing long ago in arid New Mexico. “A lot of the fig­ures in rock art have cloud de­pic­tions on their tor­sos. There is a fig­ure in south­ern New Mexico that I think is a South­west­ern im­age of the Mex­i­can rain god Tlaloc. Cot­ton is important, too. Cot­ton looks like clouds, and when you see pat­terns of wo­ven cot­ton in rock art, they may re­late to rain­mak­ing.”

Schaaf­sma was care­ful about pro­vid­ing de­tails about rock art lo­ca­tions, be­cause of the dan­ger of van­dal­ism, and about the mean­ings of the iconog­ra­phy out of re­spect to Pue­blo peo­ple. But she sees two sides on the lat­ter is­sue. “My thing is this, when you go to a for­eign coun­try to live, they say you should learn about the peo­ple. Well, you come to the South­west, and you find out that these peo­ple have been liv­ing here for 10,000 years, and I want to learn about them. Also, if you keep Western­ers iso­lated in their own lit­tle box, they’re never go­ing to un­der­stand why rock art is important and why they shouldn’t de­stroy it.”

She has changed the long-held view that rock art is idio­syn­cratic and dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to date and in­ter­pret. — Duane An­der­sen, for­mer SAR vice pres­i­dent

A Bas­ket­maker Pe­riod fig­ure along the San Juan River, Utah, wears a tow­er­ing cres­cent head­dress and a neck­lace, a row of hu­man foot­prints is seen be­low; top, a draw­ing by Polly Dix Schaaf­sma of red rocks along the San Juan River; op­po­site page, from top, a Jor­nada Style storm and rain de­ity with a stepped cloud torso, Otero County; Schaaf­sma in Canyon de Chelly; Pe­cos River Style shaman fig­ure painted in yel­low and red and flanked by bird iconog­ra­phy and pro­jec­tiles; images courtesy Polly Dix Schaaf­sma

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