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ASU archaeologist recognized for groundbreaking ceramic research

November 23, 2010

Arizona State University archaeologist David Abbott has been selected to receive this year’s Arizona Archaeological Council Award for Contributions to Arizona Archaeology. Abbott, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, specializes in ancient pottery of central and southern Arizona. His focus is Hohokam ceramics and what they tell us about the lifeways of this ancient people, whose extensive system of irrigation canals provided a precedent for today’s Salt River Project water delivery system.


Abbott, who has been doing Hohokam archaeology for more than three decades, participated in the Hohokam Expressway excavation in 1989-90. The massive project, funded by the Arizona Department of Transportation, contributed much of what is known about Pueblo Grande, the major Hohokam site in Phoenix.


His innovative research on the ceramics from the project implied a far greater complexity and scale for the ancient economy than had been previously conceived. At the time of the excavation, knowledge of Hohokam ceramic production and distribution was nonexistent. It was assumed that trading did not take place but that each group of people in the Salt and Gila River valleys made their own vessels.


Abbott’s group proved otherwise. Using thin-section analysis of potsherds, they were able to examine the crystalline structure of the temper – material, often sand or ground rock, added to clay to mitigate shrinkage and cracking during firing – and determine the origins of the temper and, thus, the pottery.


“If you can trace where a pot comes from, you can trace the interaction between the maker and consumer,” Abbott explained. “The diverse geography of central Arizona made our work possible. We have an incredible variety of rocks in a small geographic region. It was easy to tell where temper material originated.”


The big picture showed that the Hohokam had actively traded during the Sedentary Period (roughly AD 900-1100) and then moved to a local-production and local-consumption model during the Classic Period, which lasted until around AD 1450. The current big question in Hohokam archaeology is what led to the change.

Abbott is actively engaged in researching this transition. He’s also watching his work inspire the next generation. “A great joy of mine is that students are picking up on my work and going places with it I never would have imagined. That’s wonderfully gratifying,” he said.