Ritual Cache

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Salado branch of the Mogollon
Southeastern Arizona, United States

Ritual Cache, 1300/1400

Wood, stone, plant fibers, cotton, feathers, hide, and pigment
Male figure: h. 64 cm (25 1/4 in.); female figure: h. 36 cm (14 3/16 in.)
Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment, 1979.17.1-11

Discovered wrapped and hidden in a remote, dry cave, this cache of ritual figures comes from the Salado branch of the Mogollon culture, which flourished in the mountains of southeastern Arizona between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Brilliantly colored and adorned with feathers and dyed cotton string, these objects once formed an altar as a place for communion with the life-giving spirits of the earth and sky. The large male figure, with his feather necklace and bold black and turquoise zigzag pattern, features sky symbolism. The smaller female figure is a more self-contained form, probably corresponding to the earth. Her ocher color may refer to maize and pollen, symbols of sustenance and fertility. The accompanying figures are a mountain lion (the chief predator in the region) and two serpents carved from cottonwood roots, which represent agents of communication with the earth and the cycle of fertility. Throwing sticks for rabbit hunting complete the ensemble. Testimony to the antiquity and endurance of the worship of earth and sky, and to the spiritual bonds between people and animals, these objects bear close resemblance to ritual figures and implements still seen and used among the diverse Pueblo people today.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2009, p. 21.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, Pueblo peoples in southeastern Arizona developed trading and cultural connections with Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, Mexico, and other communities scattered in old Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) lands to the north. Perhaps during a time of troubles, the figures and implements of this cache were hidden in a cave. Their bold colors—turquoise, black, yellow, and red—and tiny flakes of glittering mica give them an intense visual power. Roots in the form of writhing snakes were meant to carry prayers to lakes, springs, rivers, and underground sources of water. The elongated animal figure represents a mountain lion, a predator to which mighty huntsmen and warriors were likened. This association with hunting is further referenced by the rabbit-hunting sticks. The larger figure may have been related to the male sky, dark rain, and thunder, while the small effigy may have held associations with the female earth, the place of fertility and renewal. Both figures are surely ancestral to katchinas, benevolent spirits from the waters, mountains, and clouds who today dance in masked performances held in Pueblo towns during the yearly festival cycle of life, death, and renewal.

— Permanent collection label