Paquimé jars

Effigy jar, c. 1200–1450, clay and paint, Paquimé, Chihuahua, Mexico, 23 x 18 cm; and jar with parrot design, c. 1150–1450, coiled and hand built, painted clay, attributed to Paquimé, Chihuahua, Mexico, 20 x 24 cm (National Museum of the American Indian, NYC)

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Paquimé jars

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Key points

  • The archaeological site of Paquimé (also known as Casas Grandes) in northern Mexico was a large city filled with several thousand people that flourished for two centuries, from c.1150 until about 1350 C.E. It is one of numerous sites associated with the Mogollon tradition (c. 200–1450 C.E.). The Mogollon cultural area spanned across what is today northern Mexico into Arizona and New Mexico. To more fully understand the history of the Mogollon—including Paquimé—we must set aside our modern day distinction between Mesoamerica and the Southwestern United States, a divide which is reinforced by the existence of national borders. Instead, we must focus on the cultural and historical connections throughout the broader geographic region that occupies the southern portion of North America.
  • The decorative features of these two jars from Paquimé reflect the existence of vast trade networks that operated throughout the region. For instance, the macaws, or parrots depicted on the ovoid jar are tropical birds, not native to the area around Paquimé, and would have been imported from areas far to the south controlled by the Maya. The effigy jar features a strap across the figure’s forehead that would have supported a merchant’s pack on his back. The pack might have carried any number of goods moving throughout the region, including raw materials like turquoise or cacao, animals like parrots, or finished goods like these two jars.
  • The style on both jars employs geometric and linear patterns along with flat shapes and areas of color, all depicted in a specifically chosen palette of beige, black, and reddish-brown. The repetition of pattern and forms across the curved surface of each jar enlivens the designs and activates a sense of movement.
  • The function of these two jars is not totally clear to us today.  Based on archaeological evidence and scholarly research, it appears that different vessels were used for different purposes: some have been found as funerary urns, some likely had a ritual function, and some may have just been decorative or used as valuable trade goods. While research on this topic will continue, we may never fully know the range of uses for these jars.

Go deeper

Read an introduction to the Mogollon from Smarthistory

Read an introduction to Mesoamerica from Smarthistory

Learn more about the effigy jar at the National Museum of the American Indian

Burrison, John A. Global Clay: Themes in World Ceramic Traditions (United States: Indiana University Press, 2017).

Marit K. Munson, The Archaeology of Art in the American Southwest (AltaMira Press, 2011).

Barbara L. Moulard, et al. Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2005).

More to think about

Our modern understanding of Mexico and the U.S. as distinct nations can make it hard for us to envision a past when national borders did not exist and this broader territory within North America was a more fluid space for cultural exchange, trade, and travel. Where else in the world has this happened? What artworks and artists have prompted you to step back from your modern perspective and reassess your understanding of the past? 

Research project idea

Today we live in a global economy and many things we use regularly are sourced or produced elsewhere in the world, then shipped to stores in our community or warehouses for online commerce. While the scope of global exchange is more extensive today than in the past, due to advancements in things like travel, technology, and refrigeration, the practice of cross-cultural exchange or long-distance trade is not at all new. In fact, many items that we think of as commonplace in our society today were not originally local to us. This is especially true for resources like plants and animals—think of the macaw depicted on Paquimé ceramics which was not local to that area. Pick a plant or animal that you see frequently in your community and research its history. To give you a sense of what kinds of stories you might uncover, watch these videos to learn about how colonizers took the potato and cacao bean back to Europe from South and Central America, respectively, and how the increased production of these crops on a global scale supported the growth of European imperialism. 

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.