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Gary A. David, Author of the Month for October 2009

The Mothman of Pottery Mound:
the Use of Sacred Datura in Ancient New Mexico (cont.)
By Gary A. David

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The excavation crew at Pottery Mound during the 1961 season.

The pyramid itself, technically called a 'platform mound', was constructed of puddled adobe and trash fill. As Hibben suggests, it must have dominated the expansive landscape, although it once rose only about 13 feet above the plain. Its sloping sides were originally coated with a smooth caliche surface. The mound was built on two levels with the upper one covering about 215 square feet.

Surprisingly, three pueblos, each three or four stories high, had been constructed at different times -one above the other- on top of the pyramid, with additional buildings extending down the sides and around the base. Perhaps these were added at a later stage. Also unearthed were four plazas and 16 rectangular kivas (subterranean ceremonial prayer-chambers) that were roughly 30 by 30-some feet in size plus one round kiva 22 feet in diameter.

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Typical kiva at Pottery Mound. The access was via a ladder through an overhead hatchway. Colorful murals (described below) covered all four walls. The sipapu (hole in the floor) is conceptualized as a portal to the underworld.

The flat-topped structure was similar to those found in Mexico, especially at the major settlement of Paquimé (also called Casas Grandes) in Chihuahua. It may even have had an affinity to the larger stone pyramids farther south, for which the Toltec, Maya, and Zapotec are renowned. A sunken edifice that looks like a ball court located just south of the mound also points to Mesoamerican influences.

The most spectacular feature of Pottery Mound, however, is not either the pyramid or the pottery. Instead we find the walls of every kiva covered with lavishly painted murals depicting a variety of social and spiritual motifs.

Rock art expert Polly Schaafsma defers in this case to the subtler visual medium by stating that these murals were essentially the "apex of Pueblo art":

"The mural art consists of bold, dynamic design layouts adapted to the entire wall surface. Border and framing lines are often used to break up the wall surface, or the whole wall may be treated as a single, unbounded, integrated composition. Subject matter consists of ceremonial and ritual themes into which elaborately attired humans, animals, birds, and abstract designs are incorporated. Shields, feathers, baskets, pots, jewelry, textiles, miscellaneous ceremonial items, food, and plants are also pictured. While this is a highly meaningful art, full of graphic portrayals and symbolic content, it is, at the same time, very decorative. Colors are highly varied and sensitively juxtaposed. Areas of flat solid color contrast with those broken into intricate patterns or bold designs." [2]

One of the most striking aspects of murals is the variety of brilliant colors: eight shades of red, three of yellow, two of green, two of blue, as well as purple, lavender, maroon, orange, pink, salmon, white, gray, and outlines of black. From three to 38 layers of plaster, each one providing a visual space for the paintings, were found on the kiva walls. Thus, the total prehistoric murals numbered about 800!

Some murals seem to have been plastered, painted, and then re-plastered after just a couple days when their ritual purpose had been fulfilled. This practice is similar to the destruction of Navajo sand paintings or Tibetan mandalas, which form a crucial part of a given sacred ceremony but are no longer needed when it is concluded.

Among the plethora of images are non-indigenous green parrots and scarlet macaws, which also suggest a wide trade network with Mexico. One fresco even depicts a jaguar and an eagle, which may refer to the ancient Mexican jaguar-eagle cult. Another shows a rattlesnake superimposed on an "eagle-man." Just add a cactus and you'd have the traditional symbol for Mexico.

One disturbing image shows an unfortunate man painted purple with a red equilateral, outlined cross on his chest being eaten by a horned serpent with sharp teeth and a feathered ruff. This creature is, of course, the archetypal plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, also called Awanyu by the ancestral Puebloans of New Mexico. Another mural shows a horned serpent with a zigzag body cradling a four-pointed star with a circular face at the center. This star-face (which, by the way, is frowning) supposedly signifies a "soul-face," possibly the soul of a warrior killed in battle. (See painting below.)

Some of the most unusual murals, however, are those that depict what we call today the Mothman. One shows the creature with a red body, white sash, black kilt with geometric designs, and a red headdress. His translucent wings are crosshatched and painted with a few lavender spots. One wing's lower edge has three red spots on a white jagged background.

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Mothman mural
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Pink-spotted hawk moth on a jimsonweed bloom
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Endnotes

  1. Polly Schaafsma: Indian Rock Art of the Southwest (School of American Research/University of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe/Albuquerque, 1980), p. 251. [back to text]

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