Archaeologist C. Dean Wilson
Show C. Dean Wilson an ancient Indian pot and he will not pause before telling you about its form, materials, age, and the distinctive details of the type.
“See how fine those coils are,” he says of a Mogollon piece on a shelf at the Center for New Mexico Archaeology, the home of the Museum of New Mexico’s Office of Archaeological Studies. “That’s because the clays out there are incredibly plastic. It’s not necessarily suited to painting, but it’s perfect for this textured pottery.”
In 2016, Wilson retired after more than a quarter century with OAS. He was the director of its Ceramics Analysis Laboratory and still works there as a research consultant. Before he left, Wilson, with the help of OAS director Eric Blinman, built a vast and easy-to-use website, the Pottery Typology Project, located at ceramics.nmarchaeology.org. “I continue to maintain the website,” Wilson said. “Eric sometimes refers to it as ‘Dean’s brain.’ ”
He also has a consultant business in ceramics analysis. His archaeology library fills virtually every room of his house, and one bedroom is now a laboratory.
His story begins with a boyhood spent in West Texas. “My dad was an engineer in the oil fields. I also grew up overseas, on Sumatra island, where they were starting to drill oil,” he said. “We were in a pretty isolated area. There was no television, so our entertainment was to ride around and look for tigers at night.”
He went on to study at Eastern New Mexico University and to pursue his master’s degree with focused work at Salmon Pueblo. The Ancestral Puebloan site near Farmington was excavated extensively by his thesis advisor, archaeologist Cynthia Irwin-Williams. Wilson collected clay and submitted them to refiring analyses to try to establish their character and source locations. He soon became more interested in the larger picture of what he was studying. “At that time, cultural ecology was a big thing and a sub-branch was ceramic ecology. The whole idea is looking at how the environment around us, and the resources, affect material culture and the way cultures develop.
“Ceramics was a perfect avenue to look at this,” he said. “The pottery itself is the human aspect of cultural development, with changing styles that show both human inspiration and interaction with all of the people around you. Other aspects of archaeology, like excavations, are interesting, but I sort of have the temperament and the interest of a specialist and I really get wrapped up in these sorts of issues. Ceramic ecology was a good direction. Personally, the biggest issue for me is the environment, and how people interact with the landscape.”
After college, he started working on the Dolores Archaeological Project in southwestern Colorado. This was another ruins site dating back to what is today called Ancestral Puebloan times (about A.D. 500-900), although Wilson still prefers the old “Anasazi” name for the culture.
He spoke of the flat-topped, layered landscape forms in the Four Corners area. Many of those, he said, are shale layers that produce extraordinary clay. “The interesting thing is that a lot of these fine shale clays were deposited in areas where there weren’t a lot of mineral impurities, so they’re white and they fire into these white pots. Then you go south of the Colorado Plateau to the Mogollon tradition and you have some differences that are probably cultural, but they’re also adapting to the completely different landscape. All those Cretaceous clays are covered by volcanic deposits, so you have the Mogollon Brown Ware. If you look at the topsoil, it’s a brownish clay that’s really plastic, but it’s hard to make a white ware because there’s so much iron in the clay.”
Wilson’s growing expertise ran up against a new learning curve when he moved to the Office of Archaeological Studies in 1989. Suddenly, he was working on projects all over the state, examining materials from all periods. His understanding of landscape-related factors in ceramics analysis grew in sync with his expanded research realm.
“We live in a delicate environment,” he said. “The Southwest has always been at the edge of where people can farm. So often, what you’ll see is evidence that people were there, then they were gone for a hundred years or so, then they were back again. Sites dating in the A.D. 600s commonly also have sites dating in the Chaco period a few centuries earlier.
“In the Southwest, the people we’re studying are still here, and they have these very distinct and fascinating artistic traditions that are both remarkable to study and are sort of artistic revolutions in themselves.” — Paul Weideman
“In the Southwest, the people we’re studying are still here, and they have these very distinct and fascinating artistic traditions that are both remarkable to study and are sort of artistic revolutions in themselves.”