History Colorado is fortunate to have an extensive collection of beautiful bowls, mugs, ladles, kiva jars, cooking pots and more from the Mesa Verde region, made between 500 and 1300 AD. They were recovered in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Sometimes whole vessels were encountered, but more often than not, vessels had broken into pieces. Broken pottery was often mended with adhesives that do not always meet today’s standards. Over time, many of the joins became discolored, brittle, weak, or even completely failed. Another common practice was to fill in missing pieces of a vessel with plaster and paint them to blend in. Some of these repairs were skillfully executed, but an equal number were not, and filler material has become weak or discolored.
These kinds of restoration are generally no longer practiced. The honest presentation of pottery is preferred. Many tribal representatives that we work with have told us that they prefer not to glue pots back together. A broken vessel is a stage in the life cycle of a pot, which begins with and returns to the earth.
When we move or exhibit pottery, however, we work with a professional conservator to stabilize previous restoration work. The conservator and curator decide what is best for the vessel—either to remove the previous repair, or to resurface or rework it. The conservator will use chemically stable materials that are reversible.
Recently, I worked with a conservator to assess the condition of ancestral Pueblo ceramics from our collections for exhibition in Living West. One particular ladle had caught my eye. It was part of a large donation received in 1967 from a collector who had purchased many ancestral Pueblo pieces from various other collectors in the 1910s and 1920s. The ladle had a handle and bowl with different designs. Archaeologists occasionally find pottery decorated with two designs; it has been theorized that by using two different designs on one vessel, the potter is signaling connections between different times or places or families. Not surprisingly, the handle and bowl of the ladle had been previously glued together. The repair was discolored and rather clumsy.
The conservator suggested that we rework the repair by removing the excess, discolored material and stabilizing the join. When she did this, she saw that the jagged edges of each piece did not fit together. We looked at the handle and bowl under magnification and saw that the black paint and white slip used on both pieces were also different. Someone in the past had glued together parts of two completely different vessels!
Today a work of art composed of contributions by more than one artist is known as a “pastiche.” What we won’t ever know about this piece is if we have a consciously created pastiche or if someone tried to disguise the fact that the pieces were from a different vessel with a sloppy join in order to sell it to the collector. Our collections never cease to amaze us.
In preparation for the opening of our newest exhibit, Living West, History Colorado's Collections and Curatorial staff must ensure that collection items are ready to go on display. Several pieces from our world-class Mesa Verde collection will be exhibited, including ceramics and basketry that are more than 500 years old. Artifacts may require repairs, cleaning, or other treatments to be safe and ‘look their best’ for exhibit, so checking item condition is an important part of our process. We must also compare item condition before and after exhibit to make sure items are not harmed as a result of being on exhibit.
Over the summer, History Colorado brought in local Objects Conservator Judy Greenfield to review fragile collections and ensure they will be safe while on exhibit. Greenfield has extensive experience working with archaeological artifacts, and she’s treated many collections already on exhibit, including the Denver Diorama. Greenfield consulted with our staff to reinforce or stabilize old ceramic repairs, better support and stabilize some of the baskets, and ensure that items selected for display are ready for the new exhibit.
Each item requires a unique treatment. When treating ceramics, conservators often see 30+ year old repairs that used adhesives which are failing, joined incorrectly, or just need to have excess adhesive cleaned. When treating basketry, we may see loss of structural integrity and collapsing weak spots due to loss over time or inherent vice of the material.
Visitors may still see some of the conservation treatments while the artifacts are on exhibit. Conservation is not meant to erase imperfections; rather, a conservation treatment aims to stabilize the item’s condition. Some cracks or other condition flaws are left visible (but made stable) because they are part of the history of the artifact. The artifact may have been cracked during firing or during use over 500 years ago. Rather than erase or ‘fix’ such condition flaws, conservators stabilize and maintain these fine details to reflect the item’s history.
Take a look at the photos of artifact O.2012.1, an Ancestral Puebloan ceramic ladle. You may notice cracks and areas of loss that were stabilized but still visible, while some flaws have been masked. Can you see the differences? Be sure to visit Living West (on view at the History Colorado Center) to look for more examples.
Melissa De Bie, Registrar
Photo: Ladle, O.2012.1
Contact the Library
Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center
History Colorado Center
Denver, CO 80203